The obstacles challenges and opportunities

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Conflict is a fact of life. It surrounds us and is as natural as sunrise and sunset according to Warner (1997). Conflict exists at all levels of society in all sorts of situations. Conflict often occurs because of a lack of respect for one another's needs and views. It can provide an opportunity for new social and political systems to be established and can help to shape the future.

Structure of essay

This essay will begin to describe what the obstacles, challenges and opportunities facing educators are when working in societies in conflict and post-conflict situations with reference to Sri Lanka as a main case study and literature relating to educations responses to conflict.

Background of case study: Sri Lanka

The civil war in Sri Lanka began because of the ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority in the northeast. After more than twenty five years of violence, the conflict appeared to be at an end in May 2009 when government forces seized the last area controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels. It is now time for Sri Lanka to get back to normal with regard to rebuilding the government, infrastructure and education. Since investment in universal primary education, Sri Lanka has gained high rates of enrolment (98.2%, UNICEF) and literacy (92%, UNICEF). Sri Lanka has one of the most literate populations amongst developing nations. This figure is further being invested in within the Millennium Development Goals with the aim of having all primary school aged children in education by 2015.


Teaching of History

The teaching of the history within the curriculum can be a challenge for educators. It was noted by Davis (2005) that only 'some' teachers seize the opportunity to tackle current events whilst the others lacked confidence or were uneasy in dealing with the issues of history, war or terrorism. Research carried out by Davis (2005) found that teachers agreed in the main that students wanted and needed to know about their countries history and their involvement in the war. There was consensus that a complex approach was needed that war 'isn't about winners and losers', but both sides should be presented and that alternatives to war should be discussed. Although this is ideal for teaching history in the curriculum, some countries and even educators disagree with this approach. In some history or social science textbooks, the enemy is described in graphic and denigrating terms and one's own nation is portrayed in heroic ones. Textbooks in Sri Lanka in 1970's and 1980's declared the Tamils were the historical enemy of the Sinhalese and stylised the Buddhist Sinhalese, in denial of the historical facts, as the only legitimate heirs of the history of Sri Lanka. Although it was stated by Davis (2005) that both sides of the conflict should be taught, it is clear that in Sri Lanka there is one sided teaching. Educators in Sri Lanka teach what they believe to be true and it is clear that Tamil and Sinhalese are being taught two different history lessons. For this to improve, educators need to feel comfortable and also learn the facts of the conflict themselves before it is taught to the children. Having lived through the war it is essential that children learn the reasons behind it. By presenting children with both sides, it gives them their own thoughts on the matter. This in turn could lead to cross community projects with the two different schools. With the help and encouragement for educators who teach, change can be seen starting to form in the future generation's lives.

Other examples of the challenge of teaching history are in Bosnia and Rwanda. Textbooks in Bosnia in each of the three 'nations' had portrayals of aggressors and victims were 'not helpful for peace building and reconciliation' (Stabback 2004:60). In Rwanda, the history books portrayed the Tutsi as rich, foreign and oppressive; children were indoctrinated to believe in artificial differences. Mitter (2001) points out for central and Eastern Europe that 'Teachers have had to tackle emergency situations in their everyday practice; in some countries this has not yet come to an end at all. In all the countries it started with cancelling certain syllabi and withdrawing, or at least selecting application of hitherto valid many schools old textbooks are still used, with offensive papers or passages eliminated' (p155). An example of where this has been the case is in Bosnia and Herzegovina where names and maps have been taken out in black felt tip pen.

Gender inequality

One other challenge educators face is gender inequality. While school enrolment has increased for children in most countries, the gender gap still persists. In most low-income countries, parents are more likely to send their sons to school. If they do attend, girls are often obliged to drop out early. Less than one quarter of girls in developing countries attend secondary school. It is the culture of Sri Lanka that the children follow in the footsteps of their parents. Yemen is an example of a country with the lowest female students attending secondary school (20%). Many international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) and the Millennium Development Goals (2000) have highlighted the need for countries to take action against discriminatory practices. The increased focus on women and girls since the International Year for Women (1975) has led to many improvements in the lives of women and girls. In Sri Lanka it was found that most educators are female. This is interesting to note as it is common for girls to drop out of school before university level. It is a challenge for educators to try and keep girls in school. Although most girls do not attend school in remote rural areas, they do still have the opportunity for education. As Sri Lanka is now a post-conflict country, it is now time for all children to gain some education so they can change the lives of future generations.

Not only does gender inequality exist in Sri Lanka, it is very common throughout the world. There is an old Arab Proverb which says 'a man loves first his son, then his camel and then his wife.' As part of the morning prayer of an Orthodox Jew, it states 'Lord, I thank thee that I was not born a woman.' Another quote from Confucius, China 'It is the law of nature that women should not be allowed any will of her own.' From these three quotes from around the world, it is clear to see gender inequality is not uncommon. Although these quotes do not directly relate to education, it is useful to have some background information and what other countries think or perceive of women. For women to gain something in life, for example a good career, it takes a lot of hard work and determination to become something other people don't think is possible.


Resources available

An obstacle for educators in conflict situations is the amount of resources there are available. In Sri Lanka in 2004 there was a devastating tsunami which hit the country. This alone left thousands of children and teachers in danger and completely destroyed school buildings and everything in them including books, children's work and student records. Apart from the tsunami there is still a lack of resources available for educators to use. In classrooms in Sri Lanka there is little provision for Information Communication Technology (ICT). The main teaching methods educators use is a blackboard, pen and paper. This is an obstacle that needs to be addressed. It is clear that school enrolment has not reached 100% yet so initiatives need to be taken to get children more involved in the school community and encouraging them to join. If educators overcome this obstacle then the government address this issue, greater provision for ICT can be made. An initiative like this one is already being put in place. This will be discussed further in the opportunities section.

Child soldiers

Educators also face the obstacle of child soldiers. Child soldiers are deprived of their childhood, normal social interaction and educational opportunities. The traumas they experience often leave them with long-term guilt, shame, low self-esteem, nightmares and depression. Sudan is recognised as having one of the worst records of child soldiers, forcibly recruiting many thousands as young as twelve years old. One-third of child soldiers in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda are girls. So are 30-40% of child combatants in Angola and Sierra Leone. In Sri Lanka, young Tamil girls, often orphans have been systematically conscripted by Tamil Tiger opposition fighters since the mid 1980's. Their most recent recruitment drives in schools have focused on girls. In February 2002 the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in armed conflict came into force. The treaty rose the age of compulsory participation in armed conflicts from fifteen to eighteen. This represents a significant advance in the protection of children's rights. Child soldiers are a challenge for educators. New initiatives are now put in place in Sri Lanka which try and bring back the children to education. Once they are back in school, it is then the educator's job to manage them in a class. As already stated they experience traumas and this has an effect on their behaviour and their attitude towards their peers. Educators need further training on how to cope, encourage and handle children who have gone through trauma. This is one obstacle that the Sri Lanka education system needs to address.


After violent conflict, it is often difficult to see opportunities for a better future due to widespread destruction of infrastructures, education and livelihoods.

Developing the curriculum for a positive learning environment

An opportunity that can come from countries in conflict or countries that are coming out of conflict is the development of the curriculum for a positive learning environment. This in turn can have a positive impact on schools, governments, children and educators themselves for the future. Having contacted a worker in Sri Lanka it was found that 'Civic Education' has recently been introduced to the school curriculum. This new initiative has been provided by the government with funds for developing the education curriculum. Educators now have the opportunity for enhance their own personal experiences for rebuilding the future with the help of the government. While implementing new initiatives it gives educators the opportunity to involve children in the classroom which provides a sense of ownership in their learning. It is easier to keep most children engaged in a lesson when they are actively a part of it through discussion, projects and other student centred activities. Once engaged, children then begin to create their own respect for the rest of the children in the class. Respect is something which is a possible influence to bring into any classroom but especially important to bring into a classroom where children have been involved in conflict or are living in conflict areas. Andrew (2008) quoted 'A classroom environment that promotes respect starts with student involvement, clear expectations and rigor.' What a great opportunity for Sri Lankan teachers to get involved in.

Northern Ireland can be said to have created a positive learning environment in the classroom. Educators here have taken the Northern Ireland Revised Curriculum and implemented it into their everyday teaching where interaction is the main focus in the children's development and learning. Like Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland provides the opportunity to teach respect to children in all Key Stages. In the curriculum it states that in Personal Development and Mutual Understanding (PDMU) helps children to become aware of the world beyond their immediate environment and to learn about others from a basis of tolerance, respect and open-mindedness. As stated in the Northern Ireland Revised Curriculum, communication is also a focus in gaining this respect 'Communication is central to the whole curriculum. Pupils should be able to communicate in order to develop as individuals, to express themselves socially, emotionally and physically to engage with others and to contribute as members of society. Pupils should be given opportunities to engage with and demonstrate the skill of communication and to transfer their knowledge about communication concepts and skills to real life and meaningful contexts across the curriculum.'

New technologies for educators and children

Not only are educators implementing new initiatives, the World Bank is also bring in new opportunities which educators can use to help keep children interested and focused on their education. A new technology which has been introduced in Northern Ireland over the last five years is the Interactive Whiteboard. Sri Lanka has been donated ten of these Interactive Whiteboards by SMART Technologies in Canada. This is a great opportunity for further develop educators and children's potential. Sri Lanka's educators have been trained to use the Interactive Whiteboards by Indian educators who have recently implemented this new way of learning in their classroom. Not only does this provide new technologies for educators and children but also links in India. The World Bank provided the majority of the funding for the One Laptop Per Child Initiative. In December 2009, the Sri Lankan President launched the pilot programme. This programme benefited over four hundred primary schools. The mission of this programme is to ensure that all school-aged children are able to engage effectively with their own personal laptop networked to the world. It has been found that these laptops have given children the opportunity to learn, achieve and transform their communities. It has also been found that wherever the laptop goes, school attendance increases dramatically as the children begin to open their minds and explore their own potential. This is a great opportunity in which educators can encourage children and young people to communicate with other communities. Cross-community projects can be a part of this. Educators can build relationships with other schools and gives the opportunity for learning about other communities in a neutral environment.


From discussing challenges, obstacles and opportunities, it is clear that education has a central role in the development of children's personality. The link between education and conflict is now squarely on the Education for All (EFA) agenda of international educationists (Tawil et al, 2004). The EFA movement is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults. The movement was launched at the World Conference on EFA in 1990 by UNESCO, UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF and the World Bank. Participants endorsed an 'expanded vision of learning' and pledged to universalise primary education and massively reduce illiteracy by the end of the decade. It is through EFA and help from other organisations that educators can begin teaching children in conflict and post-conflict situations. Finally, 'Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world', Nelson Mandela.