Right to Education is Often Ignored in Troubled Regions

Since she was shot in the head by Pakistani insurgents for going to school, Malala Yousafzai has championed the right of every child – girl and boy, in conflict zones, conservative communities, rural areas and urban slums – to go to school. Today, Malala celebrates her 16th birthday with a speech at the United Nations.

In this region, her bravery is being matched every day by girls and boys whose education is threatened in Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. 

Humanitarian agencies and media seldom report on the harrowing stories of children who fight for their right to education. But the world should know of the daily acts of defiance of children and youth in the Arab world, such as Zeineb, Ahmad and Muna. 

Zeineb, a 13-year-old Syrian refugee, goes to school every day despite having to make her way past child predators promising a better life through marriage before she can reach a makeshift classroom tent in the Zaatari camp on the Syria-Jordan border.

Of the children at Zaatari aged 6 to 18, 76 per cent of girls and 80 per cent of boys do not go to school: some fear to leave their mothers, others share their parents’ hopes of an imminent return to Syria.

Zeineb thinks she is lucky, also, because many girls her age have fallen into the deep trap of child marriage. 

Ahmad, a 14-year-old Palestinian, does not miss a day of school at Silwan Intermediate School for Boys in East Jerusalem. But his school is stormed regularly by the Israeli military. Several of his friends have been detained.

And yet Ahmad is lucky: about 10,000 school-aged children in East Jerusalem do not have even classroom seats, due to a shortage of Arab schools. Many of his friends who do not go to school have been lured into cheap labour, some of them in illegal Israeli settlements.

The struggle of these children is a powerful symbol of a new generation rejecting the idea of being the lasting victims of violence and unrest in their region.

Muna, a 12-year-old Yemeni girl in a conservative rural town marred by armed conflict, walks eight kilometres to get to school. She faces daily insults from people in her town, including women and girls, for simply going to school. Muna feels lucky to have the support and encouragement of her family in her dream of becoming a doctor. Most of her friends are prevented from going to school by the triple forces of unrest, gender inequality and severe poverty. Per capita, Yemen has one of the largest out-of-school populations in the world. Two-thirds of Yemen’s one million out-of -school children are girls.

The struggle of these children is a powerful symbol of a new generation rejecting the idea of being the lasting victims of violence and unrest in their region.

Despite the courage of thousands like them, new statistics made public today by Unesco reveal that four million children remain out of primary school in restive Arab states. This new figure represents approximately 84 per cent of the out-of-school children in the Arab world, a painful reminder of the extent that conflict punishes and holds back children in this region.

Globally, the proportion of out-of-school children in conflict-affected countries rose to 50 per cent of all children in 2011, up from 42 per cent in 2008. The rise is in part attributed to three new countries joining the list of the 32 countries affected by armed conflict between 2002 and 2011. Two of the three are in the Arab region, Libya and Syria.

In contrast to this dramatic increase, the share of humanitarian aid that is devoted to education has declined. Education suffers from a double disadvantage: not only does it receive a small share of aid overall, but it also receives the smallest proportion of the amount requested of any sector, according to an analysis in the Education for All Global Monitoring Report. In 2012, of the modest amount requested for education during humanitarian crises, only 26 per cent was received.

In 2000, governments signed the Unesco Dakar Framework for Action which recognised that children in conflicted-affected countries are robbed of education not only because schools close and teachers flee but also because they are exposed to widespread violence, targeted attacks on schools and other abuses. Recognition of this problem has not translated into enough action. On the contrary, these attacks are on the rise, according to another report made public today by Washington-based Save the Children. Attacks on education in Syria and the Occupied Palestinian Territories are featured prominently in the report.

The report calls on the UN Security Council to take greater action to bring an end to attacks on education, including by strengthening the UN Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism to ensure that the world knows of attacks on education, and by improving protectionfrom armed actors that perpetrate attacks on education.

These same demands have been heard at the UN before. What’s different about today, however, is the powerful symbolism of Malala speaking at the UN, flanked by the UN secretary-general, Bank Ki-moon, and the UN special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown. She is backed by 500 young members of the Global Education First Youth Advocacy Group, convening for what is being called the first “youth takeover” of the UN. Based on the experiences of youth in 40 countries, these young people have developed a call to action entitled “The Youth Resolution: The Education We Want”.

If one girl’s courage, and that of her peers throughout the Arab states, can inspire such momentum and ignite a youth movement to get all children into school, when will the international community step up and show similar determination?