NEW YORK, USA, 18 March 2009 – The United Nations General Assembly hosted a thematic debate on education in emergencies today, with participation by representatives of Member States, academia and civil society, as well as UN experts, teachers and students.
UNICEF was on hand at the debate to press for outcomes that will benefit children who are suffering in emergency situations that rob them of their right to an education.
UNESCO’s Special Envoy on basic and higher education, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, gave a keynote speech at the event. Then panels convened on the debate’s three topics: ‘Rights and Promises’, ‘Practicalities and Possibilities’, and ‘Shared Accountability’.
The panels were all based on the premise, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that education is a right for everyone, everywhere – even during wars or natural disasters. The Convention on the Rights of the Child also cites education as a right.
Restoring a sense of stability
Despite these guarantees, however, education is often one of the first victims of an emergency. Approximately 75 million children worldwide are not enrolled in primary school – and more than half of them live in countries affected by conflict.
“Afghanistan is hit hard by conflict,” said Afghan youth activist Maiwand Rahyab. “Education can be very crucial to bringing back normality and peace…. Education can create the kind of environment for children so that they can cope with the traumas associated with conflicts.”
In fact, getting children back to school quickly during or after a crisis is a proven way to protect them, and schools can offer safe spaces for learning as well as for recovery.
“What we’re trying to do through this debate and through the international campaign is to make education an important part of emergency planning and programming,” said the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy. “Schools and education are [about] more than just teaching – they could become places where children are safe and secure.”
Out-of-school children at risk
Other speakers noted that during conflict, children who are not in school or other safe spaces face higher risks of abduction and recruitment into armed groups. Out-of-school children are also more susceptible to sexual exploitation, trafficking and child labour.
“In Haiti, safe spaces are a problem because schools are old and we need to rebuild the schools, and the government has no resources to do that,” said education specialist Wildenes Etienne, who current works for Catholic Relief Services and manages a UNICEF-supported emergency back-to-school programme in Haiti.
“When we are in an emergency, many children lose the possibility to get an education,” he added.
Education as ‘infrastructure’
In the longer term, education can contribute directly to the social, economic and political stability of societies.
As several participants in the debate explained, schools help reduce the risk of violent conflict by enhancing social cohesion and supporting conflict resolution and peace-building.
“Education, in a way, is not only a right but it can be seen as infrastructure – a basic infrastructure – in the society,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde F. Johnson. This is a way of building nations and re-building nations. This is a fundamentally important issue for every country.”
Investing in learners
Today’s thematic debate sought to address the collective obligation to ensure that the right to education for all is fulfilled, especially in the most difficult environments.
Among other recommendations, participants called for major investments to be made now in rebuilding education systems in emergency and post-crisis transition countries. They also urged the use of innovative approaches to build these systems better than they were prior to the emergency. Support for affected children and communities was advocated, as well – to provide a means for societies to heal their wounds and resume development against great odds.
Maiwand, the Afghan youth activist, summed up the urgency of these issue in his response to a question about the message he wanted to leave with debate participants.
“Education is a fundamental right of every child in the world,” he said. “They need to support the education of children in emergencies now. They can’t wait. They can’t postpone it.”