For millions of children in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), turmoil and conflict have uprooted their lives and threatened their safety.
But these challenges also have rolled back progress towards the international goal of providing basic education for all children.
A group of reports launched today, including The Middle East and North Africa Out-of-School Children Initiative Regional Report, provides crucial insight into education in the region, highlighting the serious challenges children face as they struggle to realize their right to an education.
In addition to the regional report, reports from nine MENA countries that are part of the Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children were also released today.
The initiative is a collaboration between UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). It receives funding support from the Global Partnership for Education, which has been actively involved in activities to reduce the number of out-of-school children. Djibouti, Sudan, and Yemen are three MENA developing country partners of the Global Partnership for Education.
Djibouti, partner since 2006, has been able to drastically improve access and coverage in education. The number of primary schools built and functioning since 2003 has increased by 44%. Quality of learning and increasing enrollment and completion are the priorities of current GPE-funded program.
Yemen was selected in the first group of 10 countries to receive financing from the Global Partnership in 2002. GPE support contributed to increased access of children, especially girls, to primary education. In addition, emergency funding of US$10 million received in 2013, was used to ensure that more than 68,000 students had access to a safe learning environment. Schools destroyed by conflict and used as refuge for internally displaced peoples were rehabilitated and refurbished, and teachers, parents, and educators were trained on peace-building, dialogue and conflict sensitive education.
Sudan, also affected by devastating conflict, joined the Partnership in 2012 and received a grant of US$76.5 million aimed at improving access and learning through distribution of textbooks, construction of classrooms in rural areas, and strengthening of monitoring and management of the education sector.
Since 2000, the MENA region has experienced a 40% reduction in the number of children who are out of school. The drop for primary school-age children is 50%.
While this overall trend is encouraging, the reports acknowledge that progress has stalled in recent years.
In 2012, 12.3 million children – 4.3 million primary school-age children, 2.9 million secondary school-age children and 5.1 million pre-primary school-age children – were excluded from learning opportunities.
The children left behind are the poorest of the poor. They are children from rural areas and minority communities, girls, and boys who drop out of lower secondary school.
Most often the children who miss out on education are the millions of children whose lives have been torn apart by war. Indeed, the figures of out-of-school children in this report do not take into account the nearly 3 million children who had to abandon their education because of war in Syria and Iraq.
Why are children excluded from education?
The new reports present a complex picture of the reasons children are excluded from education.
For some families, poverty and the distance to the nearest school keep children from learning. Other times, teachers are not sufficiently trained, use corporal punishment or do not speak the children’s native languages.
Sometimes exclusion results from traditional values in certain communities that do not value education, especially for girls.
Conflict is also a serious barrier to education. In 11 of the 20 countries that make up the MENA region, ongoing conflict has reversed gains made in education.
Though gender disparities in the region have shrunk, gender still plays a role in whether a child has access to learning opportunities. Throughout the region, a girl is still 25% less likely to attend school than a boy. But recent trends also show that boys are at particular risk of dropping out of lower secondary school.
The new reports also highlight multiple inequities in accessing education. For example, children from poor families are less likely to attend school than children from wealthy families. And children from rural families also find themselves at a disadvantage. The gap in opportunities for rural and urban children is particularly evident in Sudan where nearly all children from nomadic communities are out of school.
Targeting the most vulnerable children is key
Winning the fight to provide all children with a quality education will not be easy. But the reports provide the evidence needed to effectively target funding and education initiatives at the most vulnerable children.
The reports offer guidance on how governments, donors and development partners can scale up interventions to reach out-of-school children, strategically address disparities in access to education and share data that can improve programs and policies.
Though a lot of hard work has been done, there is still much to do before all children realize their right to go to school and learn. It is time to finish the work.