Educating the World's Most Vulnerable Children

July 8, 2014

The number of children enrolled in school has soared since 2000 worldwide. Now, the hard work really begins.

Since 2000, we have celebrated increases in the number of children enrolled in school worldwide. 

New research indicates that progress has stalled. Given this trend, I fear we will not achieve the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015.

Why the slowdown?

We know the reason for the change in prognosis: the world’s most vulnerable children have not been provided equitable access to education. Even when in school, millions do not acquire the basic literacy, math and life skills they need to lead decent lives and secure jobs.

These are the children from the poorest families. They are children whose homes and schools have been destroyed by war, violence or natural disaster. They are children whose access to education is hindered by disability. They are children in remote villages with no transportation to the nearest school. They are the children who have to work to help their families make ends meet.

Most often, they are girls.

By the numbers

The newly released data from UNESCO Institute for Statistics and the most recent Education for All Global Monitoring Report show that:

  • Nearly 58 million primary school-aged children are not in school and 53 percent of them are girls. 
  • More than 40 percent of secondary school-aged girls in West and Central Africa are not in school.
  • An estimated 250 million children in the world can not read, write or do basic math, and 130 million of them spent at least four years in school.
  • More than 60 percent of the illiterate young people in the world are women.

A new partnership

The hard work required to increase progress demands cooperation. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) brings together educational leaders from around the world. At a GPE meeting in late June, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake announced UNICEF’s policy pledges:

  • Prioritize and advocate for education in emergencies
  • Identify and scale up innovations to improve education equity and learning outcomes for disadvantaged children
  • Focus efforts on expanding education for girls, with particular concern for marginalized girls
  • Increase access to quality early learning opportunities for all children
  • Lead the data revolution on equity in education

On the ground

UNICEF works closely with GPE to translate strategy into action. UNICEF provides policy planning, analysis, monitoring and evaluation, and advocacy support for GPE. In 40 countries, UNICEF coordinates, manages and supervises GPE programmes.

In Afghanistan, for example, UNICEF has worked with support from GPE to provide alternative schooling options such as accelerated learning centres and community-based schools. The programmes have reached more than 95,000 children, most of them girls.

In Sierra Leone, a country fragile in the aftermath of conflict, UNICEF and GPE have established scholarship programmes for girls in lower secondary school so they have a better chance to complete their education.

The Out-of-School Children Initiative is another way UNICEF and GPE have extended a hand to children who are hard to reach. The initiative—a partnership between UNICEF, UNESCO Institute for Statistics with funding from GPE—collects and analyses data that determine how many children are not in school. It identifies where the children are and the barriers that block them from attending. In cooperation with local and national authorities, the initiative recommends targeted strategies for change. Examples of strategies include cash transfers for poor families, incentives for sending girls to school and accessible classrooms for children with disabilities.

The battles ahead

We know that when we bring educational opportunities to the hardest to reach areas, we win a number of battles: learning improves, community engagement is reinforced, and children, particularly girls, can exercise their right to an education.

It is also my belief that we must eradicate harmful social attitudes and behaviours that undermine schools as supportive places of learning. Emerging evidence confirms that violence on the way to school and in school is a serious barrier to girls’ learning. Child marriage also robs girls of their right to education. It can not be tolerated.

Investing in girls’ education bolsters their dignity. But it is also pays development dividends. Research has shown that educated women are more likely to delay marriage and childbirth, immunize their children, improve their earning potential, and contribute to the prosperity of their communities. As a global community, we are making progress. But the hard work of reaching the world’s most vulnerable children lies ahead.

We know it can be done. So, let’s get to it.

Geeta Rao Gupta is UNICEF Deputy Executive Director for Programs. She joined the organization in June 2011 and brings over 20 years of experience in international development programming, advocacy and research to UNICEF.

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