Shaikha Mouza Bint Nasser Al Misned wants to draw global attention to the 28 million children in conflict zones. Image Credit: AP

United Nations: The first lady of Qatar will play a leading role in a new campaign to bring education to 61 million children around the world who are not in school, especially the nearly half living in conflict areas.

Shaikha Mouza Bint Nasser Al Misned, a special envoy for Unesco and wife of Qatar’s Emir, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, who makes public appearances, said she especially wants over the next few years to draw global attention to an often-forgotten consequence of war: the 28 million children in conflict zones deprived of education.

“The majority of them are living in our region — Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Palestine,” Shaikha Mouza said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. “So this is the scale of the crisis.”

Next week, Shaikh Hamad, and other world leaders gather for the UN General Assembly meeting, Shaikha Mouza will join UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the launch of his new “Education First” initiative, aimed at re-energising global efforts to get the 61 million children into classrooms. British prime minister Gordon Brown and Myanmar democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi will also speak.

There has been “a sort of indifference” to attacks on students, teachers and schools by government forces and armed groups, Shaikha Mouza said. It’s time, she added, “to break the silence.”

As a start, Shaikha Mouza is launching the first handbook summarising international laws that protect education during armed conflict. It was written by experts from the British Institute of International and Comparitive Law and published by Education Above All, a nongovernmental organization she founded in 2009.

The handbook, “Protection of Education in Insecurity and Armed Conflict”, covers international human rights, humanitarian and criminal law. She said it’s a tool for lawyers, prosecutors, judges, victims and laymen “to ensure that those who violated the laws related to protection of education can be brought to justice.”

Shaikha Mouza said she hopes it will also become “a preventive tool.”

“This is going to serve as a deterrent for those who may commit crimes — that they should think twice before doing it,” she said.

The failure of governments to educate so many millions of children almost certainly means the UN will not meet its goal of ensuring that every child in the world has a primary school education by 2015. But it is also galvanizing new initiatives to reach the goal.

Shaikha Mouza said it’s impossible to completely resolve the “staggering” problem by the 2015 target date.

“But it doesn’t matter,” she said. “The most important thing is to make sure that everyone is on the right track ... and I think today we are on the right path.”

Shaikh Mouza, who chairs the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, said she spends 80 per cent of her time working on education issues inside and outside the state.

Shaikha Mouza, who will serve on the advisory executive committee of Ban’s new initiative, said she’s thrilled that the secretary-general has chosen to spotlight “education under attack” next week.

And while she acknowledged that the initiative and the legal handbook won’t achieve the 2015 goal, she vowed: “We’ll be there one day — sooner than you think.”