The following opinion piece is part of series to mark the upcoming International Women’s Day, March 8.
– Access to an inclusive quality education is a universal human right. When the inherent right to a good education is ignored or denied, the consequences are severe. For a girl in country of conflict or forced displacement, the impact is brutally multiplied.
Besides their already marginalized role in war-torn countries or as refugees, adolescent girls and girls are being disproportionately affected by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic broke in early 2020, some 39 million girls had their education disrupted as a direct result of humanitarian crises. Of these, 13 million girls had been forced out of school completely.
Such is the level of discrimination that, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, refugee girls are only half as likely to be enrolled in secondary school as boys. There is a two in three chance girls in crisis settings won’t even start secondary school. At primary level girls in crisis settings are two and a half times more likely to be out of school.
In crisis settings, adolescent girls are more likely to be married by 18 than to finish school. Early pregnancies, gender-based violence and sexual and physical exploitation are realities faced by millions of girls daily. Take a moment and reflect on this brutal reality. Imagine if these figures were the reality of our own adolescent daughters.
The UNFPA projects that the diverse consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic could result in 13 million additional child marriages between 2020 and 2030. These traumatic experiences lead to higher dropout rates, perpetuating cycles of exploitation and entrenching millions in poverty. Such is the excruciating consequences of girls already enduring conflicts and forced displacement and now surviving another threat: the pandemic.
Providing girls and adolescent girls in crisis with an education is absolutely essential today in order to empower them and bring hope. Their access to an inclusive quality education during already challenging circumstances is as transformative for them as human beings arising from the ashes of hopelessness, as it is for their societies in urgent need of empowered girls and women to build back better.
Studies show that increased access to education dramatically raises their lifetime earnings, national economic growth rates go up, child marriage rates decline, and child and maternal mortality fall. Girls’ education breaks down cycles of exploitation, protecting and empowering young girls and adolescents to reach their potentials and become change-makers. And, the world need change-makers more than ever, not the least in countries affected by conflicts and displacement.
The World Bank estimates that if every girl worldwide were to receive 12 years of quality schooling, whether or not in a crisis setting, they would double their lifetime earnings, with the aggregate value running into trillions of dollars.
Education provides girls with practical skills and tools; it supports them emotionally and empower them process their traumatic experiences; it prepares them to face their unique challenges, helping them to not only become productive members of society, but more and more, to become confident leaders of their societies.
It is a small crowd right at the top, however. Only about 20 countries have a female head of state or government, and fewer have at least 50 percent women in the national cabinet. But as COVID-19 has demonstrated, several have played decisive roles in protecting our humanity on the basis of universal human rights.
So, what does the pathway to leadership look like when you are young? How do we get young girls in crisis situations into education and then later to play important roles in the decision-making of their communities, their economies and nations?
Education Cannot Wait – the global fund launched at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit to deliver quality education for those left furthest behind, that is 75 million vulnerable children and youth in countries affected by armed conflicts, forced displacement, climate-induced disasters and protracted crises. At Education Cannot Wait we place girls and adolescent girls at the forefront of our work – because it is their inaliable human right and we believe in them as the change-makers. We take affirmative action: sixty percent of our total spending is geared at an inclusive quality education for girls.
Afghanistan, for example, is one of the most dangerous countries for children because of ongoing insecurity and conflict. UNICEF estimates that 60 percent of the 3.7 million children out of school are girls. Some 17 percent of Afghan girls will marry before the age of 15 and 46 percent will marry before they reach 18. Early marriages contribute significantly to school dropout rates.
The Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan, an ECW implementing partner, reaches out to community leaders to deliver real results for girls in the most remote areas of Afghanistan, who until recently were held back from going to school and from receiving a quality education.
ECW has given priority in Afghanistan to female teacher recruitment. This is being achieved in Herat, where 97 percent of teachers are women and 83 percent of students in accelerated learning classes are girls. The first year of ECW’s Multi-Year Resilience Programme – with teaching starting in May 2019 – saw some 3,600 classes established in nine of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. This required newly recruited teachers, 46 percent of whom are women, to teach 122,000 children. Nearly 60 percent of the enrolled children are girls.
In Rodat district in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, for example, community stakeholders and religious elders agreed the lack of qualified female teachers was hindering girls’ access to education, and immediately set about to find one. It was no easy task but eventually a female graduate in chemistry and biology was hired and she has turned into a beacon of hope, helping some 40 girls return to classes.
This emphasis on girls’ education is crucial for our future as a human family and the priority must be with those girls and adolescent girls left furthest behind. As Deputy-Secretary of the United Nations, Amina J. Mohammed, recently stated: “Girls’ education is particularly under threat in emergencies and for children on the move and we need to continue to empower this next generation of women leaders through a quality education.”
On March 8 we celebrate International Women’s Day with this year’s theme of ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’. From the perspective of those living in developed countries, what that equal future might look like for girls in crises settings has been perversely highlighted by the grim consequences of the new coronavirus world. As each month of lockdowns in rich countries passes, reports mount up of the mental health issues and child abuse being suffered by those unable to get to their normal safe learning environment at school. Girls especially are at risk and the ones more likely to be pressed into domestic chores and subject to discrimination – deprived of a future.
Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the ECW High-Level Steering Group, reminds us that the world in 2030 risks being as far away from meeting the Sustainable Development Goals for education (SDG4) as we are now – unless we act decisively. No one should be left behind and that means addressing support needed by over 75 million children and youth in need of urgent education support in crisis-hit countries.
Education cannot wait for a conflict or crisis to be over so that crisis affected children and youth can resume normal life, or refugee children can go home. Protracted crisis often last for decades and families caught up in conflicts spend an average of 17 years as refugees. When education is denied to children, hopes for a better, the last glimmer of hope is extinguished.
Education Cannot Wait is about hope and action. We were established to accelerate the race for meeting Sustainable Development Goal 4 in crisis and disasters. By bringing together all actors in both the humanitarian and development community, we sprint forward to meet the deadline of 2030. Thanks to host-governments, UN agencies, civil society and communities, we move fast, effectively and efficiently. However, a quality education for girls and adolescent girls in crisis requires financial investments. Provided that the funding is available, we can together win this race for girls’ education. Of this, we have no doubt.
The author is Director, Education Cannot Wait