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By Joannes Paulus Yimbesalu
As a newly appointed Global Youth Ambassador for A World At School, an initiative launched by the United Nations to forge a movement of young leaders working to improve access to education, I want to call attention to the 57 million children around the world who are currently being denied their human right to an education. 500 other young advocates for global education join me in this call to action. Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz are two of my fellow Ambassadors who share a similar story. Along with Malala Yousafzai, they were shot by the Taliban for attending school in Pakistan in 2012. Their story, and that of so many other youth advocates, inspires me to stand up for the millions of children that are kept out of school simply because they are either girls, impoverished, subject to early marriage or child labor, or suffer other forms of discrimination.
The educational challenges I faced growing up as a child in the west African country of Cameroon were varied. However, despite the meager salary of my parents, they were still able to ensure that all three of my brothers and I received a sound, quality education. As kids, my twin and I would fetch firewood after school to save money. During the holiday, we would go to bus stations to sell plain chips and peanuts in order to help my mom provide for our education. It is now that I really appreciate the endurance and sacrifice parents make for their children.
However, many are not as fortunate. Many children, especially girls, are still not in school because of social, physical, and financial challenges. According to a 2013 UNESCO report, 57 million children do not attend school, 31 million of whom are girls. Over half of these children reside in Sub-Saharan Africa. When will these children ever be given the opportunity to learn?
Despite the fact that education-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have provided a pathway to effective planning, implementation and monitoring, there still exist many gaps in addressing education. Many children today leave school without being able to read and write effectively, making it harder for them to gain admission to higher levels of education.
There is also a lack of equal access to education for girls, with many being forced into early marriages to help sustain the family financially while their brothers are sent to school. Sexual violence against girls, poor sanitation, and traditional barriers have also all widened this gap. Lastly, the lack of a strong political will to invest in education, due in part to the lack of resources and mobilization of partnerships between the private sector, government, and other stakeholders, is another major setback.
There is great need to address current inequalities in education while ensuring that governments and civil society create effective and sustainable partnerships that expand educational opportunities for everyone. Governments should be called upon to eliminate gender disparity in primary education and at higher levels of education while ensuring that girls are provided full and equal access to a quality education. There is also dire need for governments and other stakeholders to expand and improve comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable. It is the only way to drive productivity, ensure human development as well as reduce economic hardship.
There is no doubt in this day and age that when a girl is allowed to stay in school, her chances of getting married prematurely or dying from pregnancy or childbirth decrease significantly. Not only are her children more likely to be healthy in the future, but she also acquires skills, becomes informed and is able to negotiate and make decisions that affect not only herself but her family and her community.
The education-related MDGs that are to be achieved by 2015 include: the elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005, and the achievement of gender equality in all levels of education by 2015. This would ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, especially girls, who are in difficult circumstances or among ethnic minorities, have access to, and complete, free and compulsory primary education. But the work needs to continue after 2015.
Education should be a major priority in the Post-2015 Development Agenda as it builds upon the current Millennium Development Goals. Broad consultation on education – with the goal of providing evidence-based and sustainable solutions to equitable access to education – have proven effective. In December 2012 and March 2013, online discussions involving young people from Africa and Asia and moderated by education experts, focused on the quality of learning, governance, financing, and ways to foster global citizenship. Promoting education is central to all of these important issues.
During a visit to one of the schools in the outskirts of Bamenda, Cameroon in 2008, I saw malnourished children who were deprived of an education. I wanted to do something on my part to help bring a smile to their faces. I collected my university savings and bought basic school supplies, which were distributed to over 300 children in school. In 2011, we officially co-founded an organization called HOPE for Children Cameroon with the one goal of “Educating Every Child One School, One Village at a Time” in three communities. As part of our hygiene and sanitation campaign, we are currently building clean and safe pit toilets which will serve over 1000 children – reducing absenteeism due to illness and increasing school enrolment rates.
As a firm believer that education is the answer to the greatest challenges we face as a society, I urge global leaders to raise budgets, build schools, train teachers and improve the learning environment for all children. There is evidence that we can lift over 170 million people out of poverty simply by teaching every child in low-income countries basic reading skills. Unless we revert current trends, we will not even achieve universal primary education before 2086. So why are we not making this a reality?
Joannes Paulus Yimbesalu is A World At School Global Youth Ambassador.