Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hopes of a generation and region at stake

As war stops 13m children going to school in Middle East, North Africa

What hope is there for the Middle East and North Africa, where violence continues unabated and 13 million children, the next generation, are out of school? Who will be the future leaders, doctors, nurses, engineers, writers, scientists, poets, teachers, artists...?

Surging conflict and political upheaval across the Middle East and North Africa are preventing more than 13 million children from going to school, according to a UNICEF report released at the beginning of September. 

The report, “Education Under Fire focuses on the impact of violence on schoolchildren and education systems in nine countries -- Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and the State of Palestine -- that have been directly or indirectly impacted by violence.

As the violence gripping Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya continues to deepen, and with no end in sight to other, more enduring conflicts in Palestine and Sudan, there is every reason to fear that the huge number of children already out of school across the region will continue to grow.

With more than 13 million children already driven from classrooms because of conflict, it is no exaggeration to say that the educational prospects of a generation of children are in the balance.

The forces that are crushing individual lives and futures are also destroying the prospects for an entire region. Young minds distorted by hatred and fear will need extraordinary support to contribute fully to the development of societies built on social progress, tolerance and prosperity, the report says.

Across the region, children demand -- above all else -- to go back to school. They dream of a better future for themselves and their families, and of the day when they can help rebuild their shattered communities and nations. These are the future teachers, nurses, doctors, architects, musicians, scientists and technicians of countries like Syria, Iraq, the State of Palestine, Sudan, Libya and Yemen, and their future leaders too.

Like children anywhere, they want an opportunity to learn, and acquire the skills they need to fulfill their potential. This constitutes a clear challenge to the international community, host governments, policy makers, and all those who want to see the Middle East and North Africa emerge from its current turmoil.

Attacks on schools and education infrastructure -- sometimes deliberate -- are one key reason why many children do not attend classes, the report writes. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya alone, nearly 9,000 schools are out of use because they have been damaged, destroyed, are being used to shelter displaced civilians or have been taken over by parties to the conflict.

Other factors include the fear that drives thousands of teachers to abandon their posts, or keeps parents from sending their children to school because of what might happen to them along the way – or at school itself.

In Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, more than 700,000 Syrian refugee children are unable to attend school because the overburdened national education infrastructure cannot cope with the extra student load.

“The destructive impact of conflict is being felt by children right across the region,” says Peter Salama, Regional Director for UNICEF in the Middle East and North Africa. “It’s not just the physical damage being done to schools, but the despair felt by a generation of schoolchildren who see their hopes and futures shattered.”

"It's no coincidence in that what we see in terms of our TV pictures, the tragic pictures of people crossing on boats to Greece and Italy, very much comes back to the Syrian conflict and (to) the Iraqi conflict to a lesser extent," Salama says.

Countries hosting refugees are struggling to get children into schools because their education systems were never created to absorb such numbers. "Everyone is basically straining at the seams in terms of dealing with this massive crisis, which is not surprising given that it is the biggest population movement since World War Two," he notes.

Children out of school can end up working illegally, often being breadwinners for their family. They are vulnerable to exploitation and can be more easily recruited into armed groups, Salama adds.

UNICEF's research shows children are increasingly becoming combatants from a younger age, he added, while students and teachers have been killed, kidnapped and arrested.

"We're on the verge of losing an entire generation of children in the Middle East and North Africa. We must step up, otherwise it will be irreversible and long-term damage we've collectively inflicted upon the children of this region."

The report highlights a range of initiatives -- including the use of self-learning and expanded learning spaces -- that help children learn even in the most desperate of circumstances. But it says the funding such work receives is not commensurate with the burgeoning needs, despite the fact that children and parents caught up in conflict overwhelmingly identify education as their number one priority.

 In particular, the No Lost Generation Initiative, launched by UNICEF and other partners in 2013 to galvanize more international backing for the education and protection needs of children affected by the Syria crisis deserves more support, the report says.

In addition, the reports calls on the international community, host governments, policy makers, the private sector and other partners to: 
  • Reduce the number of children out of school through the expansion of informal education services especially for vulnerable children.
  • Provide more support to national education systems in conflict-hit countries and host communities to expand learning spaces, recruit and train teachers and provide learning materials
  • In countries affected by the Syria crisis, advocate for the recognition and certification of non-formal Education services.
  • Prioritize Funding for Education in conflict-hit countries. Funding and investment in education during emergencies remains low. In 2013, less than 2% of emergency aid globally went to education and learning opportunities. UNICEF is seeking around $300 million to fund its emergency education work in the region in 2015.
The full report can be read here.