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The attack on Save the Children aid workers is part of a wider pattern of violence

Both militias and state actors are implicated in attacks on aid workers. 

On 24 January 2018, four Save the Children staff were killed in Jalalabad, southern Afghanistan, when our office was targeted by a heavily armed group, including a suicide bomber. Families and friends have been robbed of loved ones. Our organisation has been devastated by the loss of colleagues working to help children in desperate need. But this was not just an attack on Save the Children. It was also an attack on the values that define our shared humanity.

What happened in Jalalabad was one episode in a wider pattern of violence. In 2016, 101 aid workers were killed, across a broad swathe of countries from Afghanistan and Syria to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. Many more were injured, kidnapped or detained or by armed groups. The vast majority of those killed or wounded were, like the Save the Children staff in Jalalabad, nationals of the countries in which they were working.

In the public mind, attacks on aid workers are overwhelmingly associated with militias operating outside of state control. That perception is partly right. Groups like Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria, Islamic State and Al-Shabaab in Somalia have targeted aid workers. Yet state actors are also heavily implicated. Some of the most lethal attacks on aid workers have been carried out in Syria by Russian and government forces.

Reciting the headline numbers does not capture the human tragedies being played out in so many countries. The aid workers targeted in Jalalabad included one staff member working on a project delivering education to children in a country with some of the world’s lowest rates of school enrolment. Last March, armed groups killed six aid workers in South Sudan guilty of nothing more than helping former child soldiers rebuild their lives. One month later, a maternity hospital supported by Save the Children in Idlib, Syria was bombed.

Viewing these attacks in isolation can divert attention from a far wider assault on human rights. The most lethal weapon in that assault is the erosion of rules, norms and laws designed to protect civilians caught up in armed conflict.

Nowhere is the descent into barbarism more evident than in the treatment of children. In theory, children are protected by a barrage of rights enshrined in documents like the Geneva Conventions on humanitarian law, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is the most widely ratified convention in history, and the Rome Statute which governs the International Criminal Court. The reality is that the rights of children trapped in conflict are being gravely and systematically violated with total impunity.

Non-state groups bear much of the responsibility. Last year, in his report to the UN Security Council on children and armed conflict, the UN Secretary General documented over 6,800 attacks on children by armed non-state actors, including killing, rape and abduction. The depravity behind these attacks defies description.

Unfortunately, depravity is not confined to non-state actors. Reflect for a moment on the crisis unfolding in Yemen. This is a country being pushed towards famine by the obstruction of humanitarian aid and the destruction of vital infrastructure by the Saudi-led coalition. Around 400,000 children are at risk of starvation. Lives are being lost to hunger and preventable illnesses like diphtheria, measles and pneumonia. Schools and health clinics have been bombed to devastating effect.

All of this is in contravention of the letter and the spirit of the rights protecting Yemeni children. Humanitarian blockades are outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. The bombing of schools and health clinics may constitute war crimes. Yet I somehow doubt those responsible are nervously anticipating their day at the International Criminal Court. And for all the moral exhortation, western countries continue to arm and ally themselves with the Saudi-led coalition.

Densely populated urban areas have become terrifying and lethal places to be a child. From Aleppo to Raqqa, hundreds of thousands of children have been trapped in areas subjected to military tactics reminiscent of the siege of Stalingrad. The deadly assault by the Syrian army now underway in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta has seen heavy artillery, rockets and aerial bombardment of civilian areas. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 41 children have been killed. Where do their parents turn for justice?

The same question could be asked dozens of times over. One month ago, I spent time talking with some of the 400,000 Rohingya children forced to flee their homes in Myanmar. There is nothing that prepares you for a conversation with children who have seen parents killed, sisters raped, their homes burned. Yet those responsible for the heinous crimes committed are free to walk the streets of Yangon. The UN Secretary General documents systematic attacks on children by government forces in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the militias they support, including mass rape, killing and maiming. The Security Council expresses concern – and then it’s back to business as usual.

We have to draw a line in the sand. The time has come to reassert the rule of law in defence of children whose lives, limbs and futures are threatened by armed conflict. That means protecting the space for impartial humanitarian action, standing up for universal human rights, and holding those responsible for crimes against children accountable for their actions. There must be no hiding place for those who fail in their responsibility to protect children.

At a time when multilateralism is under attack, trust in institutions is in retreat, and international cooperation is weakening, we need a cause with the potential to unite people across the boundaries of nations, faiths, and political differences. Defending the children who represent our collective future, and the aid workers bringing hope in the midst of despair, is surely that cause.

Kevin Watkins is the chief executive of Save the Children UK. 

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.