Credit: UNICEF/2022/Adebayo

NEW YORK, Jan 24 2023 (IPS) – “Is it a sin to be a girl? We don’t want to be at home and illiterate. We want to go to school, study and be intelligent.”

In just a few words, this plea for education from a young Afghan girl has captured the world’s attention. Her heartbreaking question shows how the Taliban’s recent ban on girls attending secondary school and university – effectively ending education opportunities for all Afghan girls and women – is not only violating their fundamental human right to education but shattering countless hopes and dreams in an instant.

Elsewhere in the world, millions of other girls living through humanitarian crises are also being deprived of the right to go to school. In their case, it isn’t necessarily a proclamation that bars them from learning, but hunger, conflict or the consequences of extreme weather induced by the climate crisis, sometimes a combination of all of these. And underpinning this, gender inequality means that the sheer fact they are girls means their education and rights often aren’t prioritized.

For example, at present, hunger is causing huge damage to girls’ education opportunities in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Haiti and other hotspots around the word.

Yasmine Sherif and Stephen Omollo. Credit: Education Cannot Wait (ECW)

The reasons for this are many and interconnected. When food is scarce, it is often girls who shoulder the responsibility of traveling long distances to find sustenance, or caring for siblings while their parents do so, leaving little time for their studies. When small quantities of food are shared amongst a family, evidence shows girls often eat least and last, making it difficult for them to focus and truly benefit when they do go to school.

Elsewhere, from Ukraine to South Sudan, conflict is disrupting girls’ education as families are forced to flee for their safety – indeed, half of all refugee children are out of school.

Whatever the reason, when girls are forced to drop out of school, it isn’t just their education and life opportunities that suffer. Adolescent girls in particular then become even more vulnerable to violence, and exploitation. Indeed, the chances of a girl marrying as a child reduce by six percent with each year she remains in secondary education.

Inclusive, quality education is a lifeline that has a profound effect on girls’ rights. But more needs to be done to make this a reality.

Girls in crisis settings are nearly 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than those living in countries not in crisis. One reason for this is that in emergencies and protracted crises, education responses are severely underfunded. The total annual funding for education in emergencies as a percentage of global sector-specific humanitarian funding in 2021 was just 2.9%.

Yasmine Sherif pictured in Lebanon speaking to a young child at an ECW-supported facility. Credit: Education Cannot Wait (ECW)

Together with partners, Plan International and Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, are calling for this proportion to be increased to at least 10% of humanitarian financing. This must include increased multi-year investments in the institutional capacities of local and national actors.

Today, on International Day of Education, we stand in solidarity with girls in Afghanistan and in all other crisis affected countries to say “education cannot wait.” Education is not only a fundamental human right, but a lifesaving and life-sustaining investment for girls affected by crisis. We must stand with girls as they defend this right.

Next month, when world leaders will gather in Geneva at the Education Cannot Wait High-Level Financing Conference, we urge donor governments to immediately increase humanitarian aid to education. We must translate our promises into action through bold, courageous and substantive financing.

This funding is essential if we are to build resilience in the most climate-exposed nations, where the consequences of extreme weather will all but certainly pose a threat to girls’ education in the years to come. Education budgets – which declined by two-thirds of low- and lower-middle-income countries after the onset of COVID-19 – must be protected and increased, especially in crisis-affected countries.

Investments should be geared towards building stronger education systems and tackling gender inequality and exclusion, with girls’ needs prioritized at every stage of programming. Governments should also ensure that refugee and internally displaced children aren’t overlooked, and make concrete commitments towards inclusive quality education for displaced children and youth at the Global Refugee Forum in December of this year.

Right now, 222 million crisis-affected children and adolescents are in need of urgent education support and more than half of those are girls. It is critical that Education Cannot Wait is fully funded with a minimum of US$1.5 billion in additional resources over the next four years, so that partners such as Plan International and others can deliver the critical programmes needed.

Too often, girls’ voices are silenced during emergencies, leaving their experiences invisible and their needs ignored and overlooked. It’s up to us to change this, for a more just, equal and peaceful world.

About the Authors
Yasmine Sherif is the Director of Education Cannot Wait, the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises.

Stephen Omollo is Chief Executive Officer of Plan International, a child rights and humanitarian organisation active in more than 80 countries globally.