In June, Benin and other African countries observed the “Day of the African Child.” This year’s theme was “Conflict and Crisis in Africa: Protecting All Children’s Rights.” The theme is particularly relevant given that Africa “remains the most conflict-prone region in the world” according to a recent report from the African Union.

The Day of the African Child is an important day that has been celebrated on June 16th every year since 1991. The commemorative day came to be when the Organisation of African Unity first designated it to honor the young people of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. On June 16, 1976, about 10,000 black school children and youth in Soweto marched more than half a mile to protest the poor education they were receiving in Apartheid South Africa. They demanded the right to be taught in their own native language rather than the colonial language of Afrikaans. Hundreds of young students were shot— the most famous of which being Hector Pieterson who became the face of the uprising when a photo of him dying in the arms of a fellow student was published in newspapers across the world. More than a 100 people were killed in protests that took place over the following weeks, and more than a 1,000 were injured. As a symbol of young Africans standing up to fight for their right to a quality education, the “Day of the African Child” continues to be a time to raise awareness for the ongoing need to improve education across Africa.

As a global youth ambassador for A World At School— an international campaign to accelerate progress in education— I organized a youth forum to commemorate the “Day of the African Child” in collaboration with my colleagues from A World at School. We also partnered with the Sohoutou Initiative, the American Corner of Porto Novo, Global Development Organization, ZAYRAH Africa and the SCOUT movement in Benin to put together the forum. Given that conflict and security continue to be an issue in parts of Africa, the forum was focused on “securing a peaceful society for children through education and the arts.”

The goal of the forum was to promote efforts to guarantee safe schools in conflict zones in Africa and to provide quality education to the children living in crisis zones, such as Syria, Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Below are the main takeaways from the conversation:

Maintaining a peaceful society is critical to ensuring that all young people receive a quality education— and the arts have an important role to play.

Participants emphasized that improving learning outcomes will be impossible without a stable and peaceful society. This means that children need to have safe space to learn, where they can concentrate and focus on achieving their full potential without fear of danger or harm. It means having a society that is harmonious, where children can develop their talents through the arts and learn to respect each other. Many participants expressed that school systems need to invest in arts education as it can help students better achieve their full potential. Indeed, several studies have shown that students who study the arts are more likely to have better overall academic achievement, including in subjects not related to the arts. However, in least developed countries, educators and parents do not invest heavily in arts education.

Fully achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 “ensuring an inclusive and quality education for all and promoting lifelong learning” would have major benefits for Benin

Ensuring inclusive quality education for everyone in Benin will allow the country’s young people to be active leaders and change-makers within their communities. Fully achieving SDG4 will not only allow Benin’s next generation to be leaders within their local communities and country, but also allows them to serve as global citizens in a rapidly changing world and global economy. To realize this, the government of Benin will need to greatly reform education, specifically focusing on providing better teacher training and providing teachers with incentives to improve classroom learning. Hopefully if Benin can fully achieve this it will become a champion and example for other countries to do the same.

Promoting the arts can help contribute to the creation of a peaceful society for children

The arts can help students to learn how to live in a peaceful society and respect others. It helps foster creativity, imagination and collaboration. Arts education helps build respect for diversity, nonviolence and social cohesion, providing young people with values and skills-based education and cultural awareness. It can be particularly beneficial for children living in crisis or conflict-affected zones, where art can provide an outlet and distraction from the stress of living in challenging and dangerous situations. And as previously discussed, studies have shown that students who participate in the arts do better overall in school.

Learning from the Soweto Uprising 40 years ago

The brave Soweto students who protested for quality education 40 years ago teaches us that we need to advocate and push for government officials to invest in education and to protect children’s rights. Access to a quality education is perhaps even more critical today as the global economy changes and as young people need new types of skills that only education can provide. Safety is also an important concern if quality education is to be achieved. Children living in crisis zones need the protection of government. International donors need to invest guaranteeing safe schools for students across the world. The violence against female students by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria exemplifies the need for safer schools and communities for students to learn.

Education is a children’s right

The adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 makes the provision of education a fundamental human right for every child. In particular, the human right for girls to education must be safeguarded and expanded. African governments must do better to invest in education, including teacher training, improving learning outcomes, and inclusion. In addition, securing and guaranteeing a safe environment for students are critical to ensuring that all children get a quality education, even those living in conflict and crisis areas.

The #EducationCannotWait Fund—a recently-created fund for educating children and youth living in crisis situations, such as conflict, natural disasters and disease outbreaks— is an important first step in addressing a problem that so many children and youth in Africa continue to face.

John Gbenagon is founder and Executive Director of SOHOUTOU Initiative, a regional NGO which intervenes in social inclusion, youth education, women’s empowerment and communication.