Five Hundred Days Remain to Achieve Our Goal of Universal Primary Education

There are fewer than 500 days before the world reaches its deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. These goals contain a set of targets agreed to by world leaders in 2000 to eradicate poverty and hunger, ensure universal primary education and women’s rights and improve health across the globe by 2015.  With the finish line in sight, it is time to focus our attention on completing the job. We will need every single one of the 500 days we have left.

The goal of achieving universal primary education is very close to my heart. Nearly 60 million children are still out of school around the world, and most of them are incredibly disadvantaged. Half live in conflict-affected areas, millions more are poor girls living in rural areas. Until that last child, that final girl or boy who currently does not have an opportunity to get a great education, finds her or himself in school and learning, our job is not complete.

Only 17 out of the 74 countries analyzed in a major report by UNESCO are expected to reach universal primary school enrollment by 2015. By 2030 that number will rise to 26. If we, as an international community, continue at the rate we are going, 24 countries will still not have achieved universal primary enrollment in 2060. In Niger, business as usual will mean universal primary enrollment is not realized until 2120.

In these final 500 days, we should turn our attention to tackling two major issues that would help millions of children into primary education: child marriage and education in conflict situations. According to the Education Countdown campaign, 14 million girls under the age of 18 become brides each year, a major barrier to those same girls attending school. In Niger, 75 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. It is therefore no surprise that just 12 percent of girls are enrolled in lower-secondary school and only 57 percent of girls are enrolled in primary school. This is simply unacceptable.

On education in conflict situations, we know that the use of schools as military bases or headquarters during armed conflict has a lasting impact on the educational opportunities for children both during conflict and beyond. School buildings are destroyed, psychosocial damage is inflicted on the communities, with these situations overwhelmingly impacting the most disadvantaged families. This can be seen clearly in the recent conflict in Gaza where more than 138 schools were damaged or destroyed.

It is not all grim news, however. There is much to be proud of. In the past couple of decades, great strides have been made towards achieving universal primary enrollment. In developing regions, 90 percent of children are now enrolled in primary school. Between 1990 and 2012 in Northern Africa primary school enrollment rates increased from 80 percent to 99 percent, and in South Asia from 75 percent to 94 percent, meaning millions of children now have access to an education who otherwise would not have.

To build on this great work, in these final 500 days the international community should turn its attention to addressing some of the biggest barriers to universal access, namely:

  • Ending Child Marriage. The Education Countdown campaign is calling for a “child-marriage free zone” in Pakistan, to change legal marriage ages to above 18 in eight countries and end policies that prevent pregnant young women from attending school. These measures would help bring millions of marginalized girls into formal school systems.
  • Targeting Funding to Education in Conflict. As I laid out last week in honor of World Humanitarian Day, we need increased funding and more flexibility in the delivery of education to those in conflict contexts. The Global Partnership for Education is working toward that end, promoting increased funding through pooled mechanisms that will reach children in need quickly.
  • Making Schools Safe Zones. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has introduced draft “Lucens Guidelines” to declare schools as safe zones and help improve education prospects for nearly 30 million out-of-school children living in conflict-affected areas. If all countries signed on and enacted the guidelines in the next 500 days we could reach many of those children.

In these remaining 500 days, we should take inspiration from Malala Yousafzai, who recently said, “we should believe in the power of our voice and we should believe that yes, it can really bring a change.”  Malala is right. We should not give up on attaining the Millennium Development Goals. Let’s march towards the finish line together and make a concerted effort to achieve these goals. While the conversations around the “post-2015” agenda are important (and indeed, I will have much more to say on this topic) we should not let our current targets slip. Sixty million children are depending on us. We cannot let them down.