The Role of Education to Build Peace and Reconciliation in Post Conflict Settings

Mainlehwon Ebenezer Vonhm

George Mason University – Fairfax, Virginia
June, 2015


Since the end of World War II, most wars have occurred within, rather than between, states, and most of these wars have taken place in countries that were once controlled by imperial powers (Henderson and Singer, 2002). In 2002 alone, there were 21-armed conflicts in 19 different locations throughout the world (SIPRI, 2003), five of which were in African nations[1]. According to Stedman (2002), civil wars in Africa have been among the world’s worst, ranging from those in Rwanda and Somalia to the conflicts in Angola to Liberia, each resulting in between 250,000 to 1,000,000 total deaths. Most of the civil wars have been dominated by rebel movements, with a total of 74 civil wars since the end of the Cold War (Byman, Chalk, Hoffman, Rosenau, and Branna, 2001). According to Richards (1995), many of these rebel movements comprise young people as fighters. Young fighters are defined under international law as people less than 18 years of age (Wessells, 2009). Richards writes that youth were so heavily involved in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean fighting that these wars were dubbed a “crisis of youth”. Children who do not directly participate in these wars often bear direct consequences of the war as well, such as school closures, separation from family, and starvation. A Human Rights Watch (2004) report also reveals that children who do not take part in the war most often became victims of sexual assault, abduction, torture, forced labor, and displacement.

The International Bureau for Children’s Rights Report (2010) states that the impact of armed conflict on children can be substantial and have long lasting repercussions on their physical, emotional and mental well-being. Furthermore, the consequences of civil war often disrupt the normal routine of a child's educational attainment. UNICEF estimates that just over one billion girls and boys live in countries or territories affected by armed conflict, and of these, around 300 million are under five years old (International Bureau for Children’s Rights, 2010). In fact, approximately half of the 104 million children worldwide not attending schools currently live in countries recovering from violent conflicts or similarly fragile states (UNESCO, 2004). The high numbers of children not in schools, along with the destruction of education facilities, displacement of teachers, and collapse of the education systems in conflict areas, have given increased international recognition to education as a universal right driven by the need to get children in schools. Whilst it is salient to get the school system functioning again and to get children in schools, the dearth of information and discussion about normalizing the relationship among children affected by war who in some cases were on opposing sides of the conflict, render the current peacebuilding education approach inadequate to reconcile children’s differences.

Although Harvey (2010) points out that the entitlement and right of youths to education in conflict and post-conflict settings is well founded in international laws, including the Convention on Rights of Children and a number of United Nations Security Council Resolutions. For example, Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2] states that everyone has the right to education; congruently, the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons During Times of War[3] declares that education is to be facilitated in all circumstances for children under fifteen, including orphans and those children separated from their families as a result of war (UNHCR, 1949). In other words, as proclaimed by current UN protocol, education is a basic human right at all times and anywhere, including in times of disaster, conflict, and in post-conflict zones. Highlighting the importance of education in armed conflict, Graça Machel's Report[4] on Impact of Armed Conflict on Children called for educational activity to be established as a priority for humanitarian assistance (Machel, 1996).

Moreover, at a major international conference held in Jomtien, Thailand in March 1990, initiated by the World Bank and sponsored by several UN agencies, all participants agreed to make education available to everyone (Samoff, 2013). This led to the formation of the Education for All (EfA) movement to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults (UN, 2000). Meanwhile, Midttun (2000) points out that education is increasingly been presented as the “fourth pillar” or “central pillar” of humanitarian response, alongside the first three pillars of nourishment, shelter, and health services.

At the World Education Forum[5] held in Dakar, Senegal in April 2000, under the guidance of the UN, participants adopted the Dakar Framework for Action to reaffirm their commitment to EfA and to ensure access to basic education for all through the world. This would eventually become the new paradigm propelling the design and implementation of education in conflict and post-conflict settings. Congruently, four years later, following the World Education Forum, an Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE)[6] was established to advocate for the inclusion of education activities to be implemented during emergency responses. In 2004, the INEE, in consultation with a wide range of international, regional and local stakeholders and agencies, developed a Minimum Standards Handbook[7] as a framework for coordinating education during conflict and post-conflict. Furthermore, INEE developed a Good Practice Guide[8], which calls for Inclusive Education for Children At Risk – Gender Equality / Education for Girls and Women and emphasizes the need to make education a viable alternative for children affected by war. In addition to the INEE Minimum Standard, several post-conflict education frameworks have been proposed and implemented as methods of bringing about lasting peace and reconciliation. It is hoped that by use of these frameworks, which are discussed below, children will be effectively inculcated with the ethos of peace culture.

Emergency Education

According to UNICEF (2009) education can play a crucial role in peacebuilding processes (before, during, or after conflict) and can help to prevent conflict and contribute to long-term peace. Sinclair (2002) demonstrates that the provision of education during conflict stages can be refer to as “emergency education”[9], which concerns the basic child rights and ranges from addressing the psychosocial needs of children and adolescents to the protection of children from harm and the development of skills through education for peace. Immediately at the end of the Liberian civil war, in August 2003, UNICEF in partnership with the Liberian government launched a program called ‘Liberia’s Back to School’ a program which encouraged thousands of children to return to schools (UNICEF, 2003). Carol Bellamy, UNICEF executive director, claims that the return of children to school was absolutely the right thing to do for children who had endured so much for so long. Bellamy asserted that ‘Liberia's Back to School’ was the first peace dividend in the timeline of the conflict (UNICEF, 2003). While it was important to get children in schools immediately at the end of the war, there were no discussions on how students’ collective traumatic experiences within an educational environment could enhance or derail the peace process.

Education Access and Opportunity

Aside from its crucial applications during the emergency phase, education has also been presented as a developmental framework to help inculcate children affected by war with the ethos of a culture of peace. At the Millennium Summit, which was held at the UN Headquarters in New York in 2000, the General Assembly adopted their UN Millennium Development Goals[10], and committed to achieve universal primary education by 2015. This would mean a provision of education for all children, especially those living in conflict-ridden situations. In this vein, Liberia, as signatory member to the UN’s General Assembly, introduced free and compulsory education for Liberian children affected by the war in 2005. The following year the Liberian government conducted a census demonstrating the increased enrollment in public primary schools, showing an 82% rise between 2005 and 2007, or from 597,316 to 1,087,257 students. Enrollment in secondary schools increased by 16% over the same period, from 132,224 to 153,467 (Government of Liberian Ministry of Education, 2008). From the perspectives of peacebuilding education scholars, Liberia is doing quite well in terms of increasing the number of children attending schools after the war. Again, this strategy is propelled by the Millennium Development Goals to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Whilst the increased numbers in Liberia is welcome news, what the Liberian government did not comment on was how these higher numbers in enrollment were helping students become peaceful. The lack of reconciliatory strategies in place to help school-attending youths to normalize their often broken relationships as the result of war seems problematic.  It is unrealistic for children affected by the war to peacefully coexistence within the same school environment.

Resources Development

Infrastructure Development

Another frame for post-conflict education is resource development. According to Buckland (2005), early investment in repairing educational infrastructure in countries emerging from civil war is often seen as a vital prerequisite for sustainable peace. O’Malley (2007) asserts that during conflict, educational facilities are usually destroyed or targeted, resulting in school closures and even the collapse of entire education systems. In some instances, education facilities are used as training bases for rebel fighters. For example, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia utilized several educational facilities (such as Cuttington University College, Booker T. Washington Vocational Institute, and Johnny Vokar High School) as training grounds for some of its fighting force, hence making it impossible to have regular classes. Kagawa (2005) points out that in a post-conflict society, educational physical structures play vital roles as contributors for the reintegration processes of returnee refugees. Furthermore, Machel (2010) demonstrates that schools often offer a sense of normality and greatly contribute to the psychosocial well-being and development of children. While functional schools may play an essential role in keeping children affected by war off the streets and away from possible recruitment into rebel movements, it is unclear how exactly such a strategy might engender within children particularly peaceful attitudes and behaviors.

Professional Teacher Development

Indispensable to the discussion of education in post-conflict settings is the question of teachers’ preparations. According to Philips, Arnhold, and Bekker (1998), development of human resources and the retraining of educational personnel are necessary for the process of ideological reconstruction. Educational programs for teachers who themselves have experienced the war and have been away from the classrooms could most likely lay the groundwork for a peaceful society. According to Philips et al., (1998) these capacity-building programs assist teachers with new teaching and learning styles, thus enhancing and refreshing skills and knowledge after prolonged absences from the classroom. UNESCO-Liberia (2012) asserts that it is essential to teach young people in postwar societies conflict resolution, human rights, and citizenship education (PEHCED), as these are all important tools in peace-building and reconciliation. UNESCO-Liberia states that it has collaborated with the Ministry of Education to train 1,300 teachers in three counties, Grand Geded, Lofa, and Nimba, in PEHCED content. UNESCO-Liberia has also claimed that PEHCED has been incorporated as a single subject in 337 schools located in those three counties (

Despite this educational initiative, young people still resort to the use of violence as a means of dealing with differences and disagreements with peers, parents, and teachers. This is indeed a grave problem. For example, violence initiated by pupils in Lofa County left several people dead and cost tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of property damage (Butty, 2010). Furthermore, pupils from Nimba County recently stormed the Capitol building in protest of their scholarship allowances, thereby disrupting normal legislative activities (Heritage Newspaper, 2013). This raises the critical question as to how teacher preparation programs in post-conflict settings can inspire children growing up in war to adopt nonviolent behavior. Clearly this would not end all the violence, but giving students non-violent alternatives for conflict resolution will make resorting to violence a less common occurrence. 

Curriculum Reform

History Curriculum

In post-conflict settings, curriculum reform is critical. The history of the country and why and how it slipped into violent conflict is often a pivotal concern in the process of laying a foundation for lasting peace. According to Des Forges (1999), history is important because after conflict, all sides tend to blame the other for the hatred and ensuing conflict, at least in part, based on past injustices. As such, groups in or following conflict, most often the victorious groups, tend not to accept any blame for the effects of the war, but instead cast the guilt on the other side (Des Forges, 1999). Therefore, when war comes to an end in a society where history has been used as a source of discrimination, many historians call for a reformation of the curriculum. Cole and Barsalou (2006) point out that a revised curriculum that has the potential to lay the foundation for social reconstruction and lasting peace is needed in post-conflict reconstruction. The contentious issues, however, surround what to include and not to include in a modified curriculum.

According to Freedman, et al. (2008) revising the content in history curricula presents nations with an important means to convey new narratives of the past, thus the potential to influence the national identity of citizens. An inclusive narrative that is geared towards teaching national unity within the country could potentially build stronger relationships among young people. However, considering the time it may take to produce an inclusive history, such an endeavor could be a long, slow, and painstaking process. For instance, Bijlsma (2009) reveals that the government of Rwanda placed a moratorium on teaching history in school because of its potential in spreading divisive messages throughout the youth. She reveals that politicians often used the country’s history in the past as a tool to divide the society, which was partly responsible for the genocide. The fact the Rwandan government instituted the moratorium so as to create a sense of commonality was flawed, in part because the process of creating national unity was not participatory. According to Freedman et al. (2005) the lack of community engagement to contribute to social identity obstructs the government’s effort to erase ethnicity, hence, leading to the continuation of ethnic tension from the bottom.

Peace Education

The UNESCO constitution opens with the statement: “Since war begins in the mind of man, it is in the mind of man that the foundation of peace must be constructed” (UNESCO, 1947).  Harris and Morrison (2011) define peace education as the process of teaching people about the threats of violence and the various possible strategies for peace.  Hicks (1985) notes that peace education encompasses the presence of social and non-violent aspects of life, which are essential aspects of enduring peace. Peace education has an important social purpose, and is defined by some as a process intended to prepare the learners to contribute towards the achievement of peace, thus fulfilling UNESCO’s statement.  This learning seeks to transform the present conditions by changing social structures and patterns of thought which have brought them about. Peace education, in the opinion of Reardon (1988), should consist of humane relationships. 

Harris and Morrison (2011) point out that peace education is implemented either formally within institutional places of learning such as schools or universities, or informally, at the community level.  Peace education pedagogies and curricula are enriched by activities that promote a non-violent lifestyle and include attempts to end violence and hostilities without erupting into deadly activity.  Similarly, Bar-Tal (2011) asserts that some of the key objectives of peace education are changed attitudes, increased tolerance, and reduced prejudices, which are often rooted in ethnicity, religion, or gender. Hicks (1988) also write that the goal of peace education is to address the problems of conflict at different levels and to explore the path to a more peaceful future.  In sum, Wessells (2009) demonstrates that in a post-conflict context, effective peace education has a more practical than didactic focus, and it stimulates empathy, cooperation, and reconciliation, while handling conflict in a non-violent manner. The literature across the field of peace education varies from human rights education to citizenship education. However, for the purposes of this article, peacekeeping education, peacemaking education, and peacebuilding education are discussed as other forms of peace education.

According to Richmond (2008) peace education through peacekeeping carries within it the core values of resistance to war and violence. When children learn how to resist violence, it is often implied that they are also in fact maintaining peace. Meanwhile, Bickmore (2011) writes that peace education through peacemaking includes both intervention and problem-solving skills, which are essential in resolving disputes as they arise. The knowledge that children acquire often includes negotiation, mediation, and third-party intervention so as to be in the position to mitigate conflict nonviolently when it arises at the local level. Finally, peace education through peacebuilding often focuses on relationship building. Cordell and Wolff (2009) note that the goal of peacebuilding in education aims to enhance confidence building and rebuild damaged relations through a sense of collective value.

Based on the concept of peace education presented, a review of an evaluation of the Education for Peace (EfP) program in four different primary schools (consisting in total of 2,225 students and 177 teachers) was conducted by Sophia Close in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) from 2005 to 2006.  From 1991 to 1995, BiH gradually emerged from a deadly civil war, and exhibited a classic culture of violence (Danesh, 2007).  Close asserts that war had created mistrust, anger, and hopelessness among the people. As such, the objective of the EfP was to equip participants with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to prevent violence, resolve disputes peacefully, and to enhance peaceful cohesion. In addition, the EfP aims at creating mechanisms among participants which foster inter-ethnic harmony and a culture of peace. The methodology, which was applied to evaluate EfA’s success, consisted of solicitations of written stories from participants describing the most significant changes experienced while participating in the EfP program. Approximately 68 evaluation participants from each school were asked to write a one page factual narrative, and these submissions revealed that participants had begun to understand key principles of unity in diversity, conflict prevention and resolution.  Hence, they had begun to apply these skills and attitudes to their everyday lives.  Moreover, the evaluation results state that the EfP program had positively changed participants’ family and student-teacher relationships into a positive interactive atmosphere in each of the schools involved.  While the evaluation could be criticized in lacking gender balance, on information about age range, and the students’ comprehension levels, overall the program seems to have great impact in terms of empowering participants with peace education and its inherent knowledge base and skill set.


While the concepts of emergency education and infrastructure development education are vital during and immediately after conflict, the lack of full understanding of the demographic makeup of the students undermines the very notion of peaceful coexistence. Some of the students within these educational walls in post-conflict educational settings may well be former victimizers (ex-combatants) and/or victims (sexually abused, refugees, amputees, or orphans) of the recent civil war. Their abrupt assembly within the same space could lead to a continuation of violence. As was demonstrated in the example from Liberia, students continue to use violence to resolve their differences despite the provision of free primary education and the reconstruction of educational structures. The failure of emergency education and infrastructure development education to engender children affected by war with the ethos of a peace culture in part stems from the very fact that no attention is given to the reconciliation effort among pupils going to schools during war or returning to school after war. What post-conflict education strategies need to do is first figure out how to normalize the relationship between victims and/or victimizers through reconciliatory processes among children who have competing experiences of the war, before bringing them together in the same space to learn.

While it is essential to prepare teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to help protect children from recruitment into fighting forces or other criminal activities, the lack of an attempt to normalize relationships between teachers who may well be victims of some of their own students undermines the very purpose of educating for peace. Thus, further research is required into how a teacher who is a victim of child soldiers' abuse can honestly educate in post-conflict context without any malice towards the victimizers. Similarly, the lack of local input and knowledge undermines the concept of confidence building within peacebuilding processes. Peace education often lacks local traditional knowledge within the context of local realities. When the local dwellers' ways of truth, ways of knowing, and ways of doing are excluded from the very peacebuilding efforts that should help them in the first place, the very concept of fostering harmony is impeded. Therefore, as a means to strengthen future peace education mechanisms, it would be advisable that peace education frameworks take into account how peace and reconciliation efforts within traditional settings could engender within the pupils the ethos of a culture of peace as way of genuine reconciliation and lasting peace.


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 Use the following to cite this article:
Vonhm, Mainlehwon Ebenezer, "The Role of Education to Build Peace and Reconciliation in  Post Conflict Settings," Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July, 2015. <>.

           Liberia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, and Chad.

            Article 26, para 7. of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory . . .”

            Article 24. para. 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention “The parties to the conflict shall take the necessary measures to ensure that children under fifteen, who are orphaned or are separated from their families as a result of the war, are not left to their own resources, and that their maintenance, the exercise of their religion and their education are facilitated in all circumstances”.

            Following the UN General Assembly resolution 48/157 of 20 December 1993, Graça Machel was appointed by the Secretary-General to write a report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. The report, published in August 1996, brought worldwide attention to the issues affecting children living in conflict zones.

            The World Education Forum, Dakar, Senegal, from 26 to 28 April 2000, was arguably the most important event in worldwide education at the dawn of the new century. By adopting the Dakar Framework for Action, the 1,100 participants of the Forum reaffirmed their commitment to achieving Education for All. Retrieved from

             INEE was officially established at an Inter-Agency Consultation held in Geneva in December 2000. For further information, see Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, “Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies”, available on-line at

            Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, “Minimum Standards for Education in Emergencies, Chronic Crises and Early Reconstruction”, available at

           The Good Practice Guide specifically suggests six strategies to address the needs of children associated with armed conflict including: a) preventing schools from becoming places of recruitment or abduction; b) identifying and coordinating education programmes for children formerly associated with armed groups and forces; c) conducting and participating in needs assessments of children formerly associated with armed groups and forces; d) developing plans for these children to reintegrate in schools; e) designing or supporting programmes created through participatory assessment; and f) evaluating and monitoring all programmes designed to assist children formerly associated with armed groups and forces.

           The term “emergency education” is used at inter-agency level to refer to education in situations where children lack access to their national education system, due to man-made crises or natural disasters. For example, UNESCO states an educational emergency is a crisis situation created by conflicts or disasters which have destabilized or destroyed the education system, and which require an integrated process of crisis and post-crisis response (UNESCO, 1999).

              MDGs comprise eight developmental goals, which were established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000, after the adoption of the UN Millennium Declaration. All 189 United Nations member states at the time committed to help achieve the MDGs by 2015. Editor's note:  the original source link for this information has gone bad, but more information about MDGs can be found at: