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Why Education Cannot Wait In Emergencies

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A young girl at school in Lamahi district, Nepal (Photo: Plan International / Peter de Ruiter)

Education is every child's right, including children affected by conflict, disaster, and other emergencies. When a child's life is uprooted and turned upside down in times of crisis, they can lose their home, their friends, and even their loved ones. To ensure these children don't also lose out on their chance at a better and brighter future, education must become a priority during emergencies.

In adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) last year, governments, including Canada's, pledged to ensure that all of the world's girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education by 2030. However, without increased action and funding to reach and teach children affected by crises, the world will fall far short of this goal.

The Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau's announcement, on the final day of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, of an additional $331.5 million in humanitarian assistance funding to help meet immediate life-saving needs and address unprecedented humanitarian challenges, is a welcome step in the right direction. However, as the world looks forward to the United Nation's General Assembly in September, Canada should boldly pledge to meet its fair share of the current $8.5 billion annual funding gap for education in emergencies.


Boy salvages a book from his collapsed school in Suspachhayabati (Photo: Plan International / Peter Bregg)

Why are children in emergencies out of school?

Currently, there are 75 million children, aged three to 18 years, living in 35 crisis-affected countries and in desperate need of educational support. This includes 17 million refugees and internally displaced children who are fleeing disaster and conflict. Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, South Sudan and Central African Republic have forced a generation of children and young people out of school, with little hope of returning.

In Syria, six years into the conflict, two million children are out of school, as are over half of the 1.4 million refugee children and young people who have fled into neighboring countries. When I visited the Turkish-Syrian border earlier this year I was outraged, though perhaps not surprised, to learn only 25 per cent of Syrian refugees living outside of refugee camps are attending school. The reasons for this are complex and varied:

  • Syrian children don't speak Turkish and face difficulty integrating into the Turkish school system.
  • As a result of their country's civil war, many have already missed two or three years of school and don't have the support they need to catch up.
  • Girls are often married off to Turkish men, as their families think this will protect their daughters and better integrate them into Turkish society.
  • Boys, often the only males left in the household, are expected to provide for the family and stop attending school.

Why does education matter?

Despite the fact that children themselves consistently prioritize education above all else, when asked about their greatest needs during times of crisis, less than two per cent of humanitarian funding currently goes towards education. There is still a very narrow perception that when a crisis hits, education is simply a nice to have, rather than a need to have. Food, water, shelter and sanitation always seem to take precedent. And although all of those things are essential, I reject the notion that education is not equally as important.


Maya learning in class at a Plan-supported school in Cairo (Photo: Plan International / Plan International / Eman Helal)

It is incomprehensible that education is often a humanitarian afterthought, despite the fact that it has been demonstrated as the most effective way to normalize children's lives, help them recover from trauma, teach them how to stay healthy and safe, and ensure they don't become a generation lost to early and forced marriage, sexual exploitation, radicalization and a myriad of other dangers. For girls, who are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation during times of crisis, education not only provides protection but also hope and opportunities for the future.

The Government of Canada has a long history of supporting and advocating for education in emergencies. It has been instrumental in developing the Education Cannot Wait Fund, which has bold and ambitious targets to enable adequate delivering of educational supports and learning opportunities for children during and after emergencies. I sincerely hope to continue to see Canada playing a leading role in ensuring all girls and boys affected by crisis are able to learn and thrive.

Learn more and take action.

Yona Nestel is the Senior Education Advisor at Plan International Canada, where she works closely with colleagues from around the world to influence education policies, and advocate for all girls and boys to complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education. Yona advises several large education projects in Africa and Asia, focusing on quality learning, girls' education and approaches for reaching Out of School Children.