By Yasmine Sherif
NEW YORK, Jan 23 2021 – Looking back upon 2020, we all bear the scars of a devastating year; none so much as girls and boys around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education for over 1.6 billion children and youth globally and continues to do so. It has also deepened socio-economic inequities and heightened insecurities around the world, further impacting the lives of girls and boys everywhere. Ongoing, protracted conflicts, forced displacement and the worsening climate crisis were no less forgiving.
2020 was, in short, a brutal year for the world’s children and youth – most markedly upon the 75 million children and youth whose education had already been disrupted by emergencies and protracted crises, and who are now doubly-hit by COVID-19 – and the impacts continue to this day. It is crucial that we take a moment to reflect upon and mark the International Day of Education on 24 January 2021. It is exactly now that we need to reinforce our commitment to education as the crucial tool to carve a path forward for all the world’s children and their futures, as was hammered home to me again on my recent trips to Burkina Faso and Lebanon – both reeling from multiple crises.
Conflict and insecurity have driven a million people from their homes in Burkina Faso in recent years. Educational facilities have been targeted, teachers and students have been attacked and school closures due to attacks doubled from 2017 to 2019, disrupting the education of more than 400,000 children.
Teachers and students in Kaya, the fifth-largest city in Burkina Faso, where many displaced families have fled to from insecurity and violence, showed me their tragic, challenging reality last week. Schools severely lacked infrastructure to house students, teaching materials were missing, and water and sanitation were non-existent. Some classrooms have tripled in size, now holding over a hundred pupils each.
On top of this, the pandemic resulted in the closure of all schools for several months in 2020. Currently, there are more than 2.6 million children out of school and in the six most severely affected regions of Burkina Faso, the primary school completion rate is only 29%.
Yet even in these ill-equipped and overcrowded schools, hope and positivity have not been extinguished and are being kept alive by teachers, workers and the irrepressible enthusiasm of the students themselves. Rodrigue Sawodogo, a nine-year-old boy displaced by conflict, told me, “I would like to become a policeman to save my country, because I want everyone to live in peace.”
The crisis in Burkina Faso and in the whole Central Sahel region is among the fastest deteriorating in the world. We can either watch and do nothing at all to help give a chance to children like Rodrigue to achieve their dreams, or we can actually act right now, by investing in children and adolescents to empower them to achieve their full potential and to become positive change agents for their communities.
Education Cannot Wait – the global fund dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crises — in partnership with the Government of Burkina Faso, UNICEF and Enfants du Monde, has launched a multi-year programme that aims to provide education to 800,000 children and adolescents in crisis-affected regions in the country. ECW is providing an initial $11.1 million for three years of seed funding. But that is not enough. We are calling on public and private donors to raise a further $48 million to reach every vulnerable child.
Just a few weeks before my visit to Burkina Faso, I also travelled to Lebanon in December 2020 to review the education crises the country is facing and to advocate globally for more funds to facilitate access to education for all. Lebanon hosts the largest proportion of refugees per capita of the local population in the world. Since 1948 it has been home to a large Palestinian refugee community, while more than one million Syrians have crossed the border since 2011.
Compounding economic, health and political crises are putting over a million children and youth at risk in Lebanon. According to ECW’s 2019 Annual Results Report, over 630,000 Syrian children and 447,400 vulnerable Lebanese children faced challenges accessing education.
The banking system has collapsed and more than half the country is living in poverty, according to a 2019 report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. And that was before COVID-19 deepened the economic recession and before Beirut’s port was ripped apart by a catastrophic explosion in August, killing 200 people, leaving 300,000 homeless and damaging 140 schools. Within a month of the blast, ECW approved a $1.5 million emergency fund to rapidly rehabilitate 40 schools and to support 30,000 girls and boys to resume learning.
During this latest mission, ECW worked alongside the Lebanese government, local NGOs and United Nations partners to establish multi-year resilience programmes in Lebanon. These aim to bridge the gap between short-term humanitarian responses and longer-term development interventions. A similar multi-year resilience programme for the education sector is about to be launched for Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Education is a development sector and it requires sustained investments to save millions of girls from early marriage, early childbirth and boys from joining armed terror groups.
To do so, Education Cannot Wait needs the funds required to fully fund these multi-year programmes. We are urgently appealing to public and private sector donors to help close the funding gap to provide inclusive, quality education to both internally displaced, refugee children and to vulnerable host communities.
Our past does not define our future. The violence, insecurities and crises that have defined 2020 will only inspire us to do more, to act quicker and to build a stronger and more resilient foundation. On this International Day of Education, we hope you can take a moment to reflect upon how education has impacted your life. Are you ready to share your privilege with others less fortunate?
We encourage you to think about the millions of children in multiple crises and how we all share a responsibility to help. We have all been affected by the pandemic. We share a common humanity and a common human experience. Let us serve the most vulnerable – crisis-affected children and youth – and let us be there for them when they most need us. Let our moral choices be translated into financial support. Let’s make Sustainable Development Goal 4 a reality for all those left furthest behind.
The author is Director, Education Cannot Wait