COVID-19, climate-induced disasters, the Afghanistan crisis, the Ukraine conflict, and other forgotten crises such as in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and Yemen – threats against global stability and security are at extraordinary highs and projected to worsen. Communities, families, and children are suffering at unprecedented levels, with basic securities and rights being stripped from them, often in the blink of an eye. Essential services like education, health, and child protection are deteriorating, or sometimes abruptly disappearing, only further exacerbating related refugee crises and challenging recovery efforts.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 258 million children around the world were already failing to access basic education. Hundreds of millions more – over 50 percent of those children in school in low and middle-income countries – were accessing education but nevertheless unable to read and understand a basic text by the end of primary school. With COVID-19 school closures affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners – over 90 percent of the world’s school-going population – an additional 11 million children are at risk of not returning to school, and child illiteracy is expected to rise sharply from 50 to 70 percent. During the pandemic, about 40 percent of lowand lower-middle-income countries have not supported learners at risk of exclusion, such as those living in remote areas, the poor, linguistic minorities, and learners with disabilities. The UN Secretary-General has called the effects of the pandemic on learning a global generational catastrophe.
Adding to this, children will bear the brunt of the impact of climate change, as extreme weather events and slowonset changes intensify in magnitude. Floods and tropical storms that damage or destroy schools leave children with no place to learn, particularly exposing girls to increased risks of violence and exploitation.
Changing weather patterns and droughts affecting agricultural livelihoods add financial stress to vulnerable families, who may turn to child labour, child marriage, or other negative coping strategies instead of their children’s education. Adding further to this, armed conflict and political instability is driving refugee crises and attacks on education itself. Prior to the most recent developments in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and other crises, over 11,000 attacks on education facilities or military use of them were reported between 2015 and 2019.
Conflict and instability exacerbate existing gender inequalities and harmful gender norms, and as a result, girls’ education and schools are particularly at risk. In total, Education Cannot Wait (ECW) – the global fund for education in emergencies – estimates that 75 million vulnerable, school-aged children and youth are already missing out on education due to armed conflicts, forced displacement, natural and climate-change-induced disasters, and other protracted crises.
Safe, quality, transformative education is a foundation for peace, tolerance, human rights, sustainable development, and better futures. Sustainable Development Goal 4 – ambitious at its onset – is quickly becoming but a pipedream for many children around the world. It is paramount to urgently increase international cooperation to protect the right to education of children and learners from being disrupted by emergencies and crises like COVID-19, climate change, and conflict.
Central to this urgent need is three interrelated pillars of
(1) Building resilient education systems,
(2) Increasing gender equality and reducing marginalisation, and
(3) Upholding accountability and financing.