09/10/2015 05:22 EDT | Updated 09/10/2016 05:12 EDT

A Decade of Gains Made in Global Education Is at Risk

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - SEPTEMBER 1: Muslim children receive education at Shaam ul-Islam Madrasa in Lenasia district of Johannesburg on September 1, 2015. Arabic grammar and literature, mathematics, logic, and natural science are studied in madrasahs in addition to Islamic theology and law. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Hellen Lemian, 14, raced across town to her grandmother's house -- the elderly woman was her last hope. All of Lemian's arguments with her father had failed. She was frightened and desperate.

The family of 13 lives in Naikarra, a rural town in southern Kenya. Lemian knew if her grandmother couldn't convince her father (her mother is deceased) of the importance of education, then her schooling was finished. Lemian knew her father would pull her from school and marry her off.

Fortunately, African grandmothers are formidable women. Standing in the doorway of her house, Lemian's grandmother argued her son into submission and Lemian was allowed to continue her studies. Lemian's family are Maasai livestock herders. With low-incomes and few schools within walking distance, getting an education here remains a challenge, especially for girls.

As Canada's streets fill again with yellow buses, we're reminded how fortunate Canadians are in the educational opportunities available to our children -- opportunities that do not exist for millions of others. And while the world has made great progress on education over the last decade, there are alarming signs we're losing some of the gains we've made.

When the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to end extreme poverty were launched in 2000, the United Nations recorded more than 196 million children and teens not attending school. The biggest barrier is poverty. In Kenya, for example, high school fees are approximately $120 a year, a princely sum for families like Lemian's that exist on less than a dollar a day. And for many children, schools are far from their homes, requiring much more in boarding costs.

Lemian was only able to attend Kisaruni All Girls Secondary School because it finds sponsors for students in need.

The decade that followed the introduction of the MDGs saw significant global government and private investment in building and equipping schools, as well as supporting national education systems. By 2011, the number of children out of school had been reduced by more than 70 million. Impressive, but a long way from achieving the MDG goal of universal primary education.

What's disturbing is that, since 2011, the number of children not in school is rising again. According to the UN, 2.4 million more children were out of school last year than in 2011.

One cause is declining global aid from rich nations. Funding for primary education is 11 per cent lower today than at its peak in 2010. Only eight per cent of the world's development dollars are now spent on education -- the least since 2002. Disappointingly, Canadian government support for education in development has plummeted by almost half -- $344 million in 2014 compared to $655 million in 2010 [LINK]. The UN predicts that, over the next 15 years, education funding will fall short of what's needed to achieve universal primary education by a staggering $7.5 billion a year.

Despite progress towards gender parity in global education, there's still a long way to go. The UN expects that, by the end of this year, 69 per cent of countries will have achieved equal enrolment for boys and girls in primary school. But only 48 per cent will have achieved parity in high schools. For some countries, equality isn't even visible on the horizon. In Ethiopia, Haiti, and Yemen, for example, the UN experts say 88 per cent of the poorest young women have not completed primary school.

Lemian's story has a happy ending. With perseverance, and the support of her grandmother and teachers, she was able to see her education through. Now 18, Lemian stood proudly in the ranks of Kisaruni's first graduating class in January. She's currently enrolled in a vocational internship program with her sights set on becoming a teacher.

"It is important for me because our community still has few teachers. I can help other children," Lemian tells us.

Later this month, international leaders meet in New York City to determine how the world will follow up on the Millennium Development Goals. One of the key questions must be how to hold on to the gains we have made in global education -- and ultimately achieve the goal of a full education for all.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.