In 2018, about 260 million children and youth did not go to school, according to data collected by the United Nations. That’s one in every five worldwide. And 617 million youth worldwide lacked basic mathematics and literacy skills, according to a survey from the year before.
Conflict-affected areas are particularly hard-hit. About 50 percent of out-of-school children of primary school age live in such areas. Close to four million child refugees, predominantly from conflict-affected countries, could not enroll in school. Children with disabilities are frequently denied school, overlooked and uncounted. Girls are particularly vulnerable to dropping out due to sexual harassment, child marriage, and gender discrimination. Taliban acid attacks against Afghan girls who go to school have garnered significant media coverage, but the problem is much more extensive.
For more than a decade, experts have warned about an education “crisis”—with stalling quality and access to education, growing numbers of young people leaving schools without the skills they need, and large gaps in education funding. But the leadership needed to resolve it is lacking.
Providing quality education for all children is one of the main pillars of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals for governments to meet by 2030. Governments also need to fulfill the vision of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the international treaty that for the last thirty years has enshrined every child’s right to an education.
The Global Compact on Refugees, adopted by United Nation member states in 2018, also includes the need to facilitate refugee children’s access to national education systems. On December 17 and 18, Geneva will host the world’s first Global Refugee Forum recognizing the need to “translate the principle of international responsibility-sharing into concrete action.”
For the world’s children, especially in countries with widespread human rights abuses, the clock is ticking.
A 2018 study by Human Rights Watch found that schools in Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, and Sierra Leone have expelled tens of thousands of girls who marry or get pregnant, destroying their futures and endangering their children’s survival.
Among the factors pushing girls out of school are the high prevalence of sexual violence and harassment, gender discrimination, and child marriage. Girls confront multiple, daily obstacles to schooling—from school fees and costs to a lack of proper toilets—that could be fixed if governments took action to address them at the needed scale. And in contexts where conflict and deeply entrenched gender discrimination add to these barriers, there are also often fewer schools for girls than boys.
Children with disabilities often cannot enroll at all; nearly 50 percent are out of school, according to the Learning Generation study. Others are segregated into institutions that lack any mandate to educate them, as is still the case in countries including Armenia, Lebanon, Serbia, and Russia. While the Convention on the Rights of the Child protects the right to education, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities aims at equal and inclusive education system at all levels.
From Central Europe to Central Asia, three-quarters of 5.1 million children with disabilities are excluded from quality, inclusive education, UNICEF found. In Kazakhstan and Iran, government-mandated bodies and medical tests can exclude children with disabilities from education altogether. Countries like Nepal have improved accessibility but still isolate children with disabilities in separate classrooms, with untrained teachers. South Africa claims to have achieved universal primary enrollment, but its failure to provide inclusive education is keeping close to 600,000 children with disabilities out of school.
Children who lose access to education during conflict are affected long afterward. In Syria, one-third of the schools have been damaged or destroyed, and many will remain so for years after the fighting ends. Iraq declared victory over the extremist group ISIS in 2017, but has since effectively blocked tens of thousands of Iraqi children from going to school because their fathers are suspected ISIS supporters.
Fewer than 15 percent of the thousands of asylum-seeking children contained by Greece on the Aegean islands can access formal education. Bangladesh opened its border in 2017 to Rohingya-minority refugees fleeing from horrific crimes in Myanmar, but has since barred nearly 400,000 children from any real education because it doesn’t want the Rohingya to stay. And in Afghanistan, the number of children—especially girls—attending school in some areas is falling due to worsening violence and donor disengagement.
These policies, and inactions, are rarely seen as what they are: human rights abuses on a vast scale which perpetuate inequality and discrimination and deprive children of their fundamental right to education. Governments should be held accountable for discriminatory educational policies that deny children the chance to gain skills, break the poverty cycle, and fully participate—economically and socially—in their societies.
Countries are obliged under international law to use the maximum available resources to fulfill the fundamental right to education for all children. But some governments, including those with vast resources, such as Equatorial Guinea, treat the right to education dismissively, failing to invest or corruptly squandering resources needed for schooling.
For instance, Pakistan’s under-investment in public education has left 22.5 million children out of school. Girls are especially hard hit: 32 percent are not in primary school, compared with 21 percent of boys, and by the ninth grade (around fourteen to fifteen years old), only 13 percent of girls are still in school.
While most out-of-school children are in lower-income countries, there are huge and growing gaps in access and learning in middle- and higher-income countries, too. The source of the problem is not always poverty, but entrenched discrimination and sustained exclusion, perpetuated by impunity for governments that negligently or intentionally keep children out of their education systems, including through under-investment in education.
Getting all children into quality and accessible education by 2030 means holding governments to account for imposing discriminatory policies that block children’s right to quality education.