“I first think about my children. They are why we were forced to leave - because our children are always our first concern.”
These are the moving words of Victoria, who fled the brutal war in Ukraine with her two daughters. Her eyes welling up with tears, she recalled their dangerous journey from Ukraine. She and her two school-aged daughters were forced to leave behind everything they have ever known.
Look around the world at this very moment. Whether we look at it in stark numbers and statistics, whether we look at it as a generational loss of basic human rights, including the right to an education, or whether we look inwardly and feel the unspeakable human suffering and devastation taking place, we all agree: we are at a historically low point in our collective humanity.
For decades now, world leaders have talked about ending hunger and poverty and building a new world order based on human rights and gender-equality.
In 2021, COVID-19 continued to plague the world – a world already burdened by armed conflicts, climate-induced disasters and forced displacement. Communities, nations and people struggled to maintain normalcy in the midst of the abnormal. This was especially notable in the education sector – a sector that is the very foundation for achieving all human rights and all Sustainable Development Goals.
COVID-19 has upended our world, threatening our health, destroying economies and livelihoods, and deepening poverty and inequalities. It also created the single largest disruption to education systems that the world has ever seen.
“Now is the time for a stronger, more networked and inclusive multilateral system anchored in the United Nations,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his latest report “Our Common Agenda.” Indeed, there is a fork in the road: we can either choose to breakdown or to breakthrough.
Kabul 1990. I land in the capital of Afghanistan for my very first mission with the United Nations. Controlled by the government, Kabul was surrounded by the Mujahedeen. As a young female professional, living and working across the country, I felt protected by the Afghans, whether walking in the bustling cities or meeting with the Mujahedeen in the rural countryside. Afghanistan had already been at war for over ten years and we all worked with the hope that the fighting would come to an end soon.
The Taliban takeover of government in Kabul is just days old, and the eyes of Afghans and the world are cautiously watching and hopeful to see them stand by their word and ensure that girls’ education be promoted and protected.
The first time I visited South Sudan in 2004 - prior to its independence - I travelled across the entire the country which was then a region devastated by man’s inhumanity to man. Although South Sudan is slightly larger than France, I could find only one concrete school building in Rumbek.
It may be a challenge, but it is also an absolute necessity: bridging the gap between international law and reality and quickly crossing the bridge to reach all crisis-affected children and youth left furthest behind. Inclusive and equitable quality education is the right of every girl and boy and the objective of Sustainable Development Goal 4.
The climate crisis is amplifying the effects of instability and violence in the world’s poorest countries. Nowhere is this more visible than in Africa’s Central Sahel region, where increasing temperature, floods, droughts and other climate change-induced disasters are triggering conflicts, displacement, and pushing girls and boys into the shadows.
The right to an inclusive quality education is not a privilege. It is a human right. Delaying or ignoring the right to an education equals failing to protect human rights. The longer we wait, the less we contribute to justice.
A few weeks ago, I traveled with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi to the Modale refugee site in the Nord-Ubangi province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
(DRC). What we witnessed there was a profound humanitarian crisis that has left 4.7 million children and youth in need of urgent, life-saving, life-changing educational support.
The month of May marks mental health awareness month or mental health awareness week in several countries around the world. Many people will be reading posts and blogs about the importance of getting more sunshine and exercise to avoid the blues, about ways to deal with the stress of the pandemic, about dealing with everyday challenges that disrupt our striving for happiness.
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity,” Nelson Mandela once said. Today, the humanity of 128 million children and adolescents living in countries is impacted by armed conflicts, forced displacement and climate-induced disasters, where virtually every single one of their human rights are being challenged. The most central one, and in all too many cases, their only hope - their inherent right to an inclusive quality education, as enshrined in international human rights conventions - is brutally challenged, if not also willfully ignored or denied.
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.
“As we enter 2021, education must be at the core of pandemic response and recovery efforts,” says António Gutteres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, in his interview with Education Cannot Wait (ECW) for this monthly issue, reminding us that “upholding our pledge to leave no one behind starts with education.”
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.
As Mohammed, a Palestine refugee with impaired vision who attends a specialized UNRWA programme for children with disabilities, told us during our mission to Lebanon a week ago: “I was worried. I was worried that I could not continue my education because the programme was going to be cut. Now I have hope that I can continue to study and make my dream come true.” As 2020 comes to a close and we reflect on Education Cannot Wait’s mission this past year, two things stand out: hope and action. Amidst multiple crises around the globe, exacerbated by the COVID-19 global pandemic, hope has been the fuel driving us all forward to take action to deliver to those left furthest behind. Indeed, while hope is life-sustaining for a young girl or boy enduring conflict, forced displacement and disaster, it cannot be sustained without action.
Education is not a privilege. It is a fundamental human right. Yet, education is undervalued even at the best of times. We often fail to connect the dots between the right to education and the realization of all human rights. As noted by the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, we have failed to give ‘this massive potential in transforming human lives’ the attention it deserves.
Girls are change makers and world shapers! When girls speak up, they are a powerful force to be reckoned with.