Education in emergencies: Why education can no longer wait

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Guest blogger

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Education is every child’s right, including children affected by conflict, disaster and other emergencies. When a child’s life is uprooted and turned on end in times of crisis, they can lose their home, their friends and even their loved ones. To ensure these children don’t also lose out on their chance at a better and brighter future, education must become a priority during emergencies.

To share why education is so vital to children in emergencies, Plan International Canada’s Senior Education Advisor, Yona Nestel, explores the issue in this guest post.


Yona NestelYona is the Senior Education Advisor at Plan International Canada, where she works closely with colleagues from around the world to influence education policies, and advocate for all girls and boys to complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education. Yona advises several large education projects in Africa and Asia, focusing on quality learning, girls’ education and approaches for reaching Out of School Children.

Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

To achieve Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals, ALL children must have access to quality education.

In adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) last year, governments, including Canada’s, pledged to ensure that all of the world’s girls and boys would complete free equitable and quality primary and secondary education by 2030. However, without increased action and funding to reach and teach children affected by crises, the world will fall far short of that goal.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders have an important opportunity at the World Humanitarian Summit held in Istanbul May 23 – 24, 2016 to affirm education’s lifesaving and life-sustaining impact on children affected by crisis and emergencies, and pledge to meet the current $8.5 billion annual funding gap for education in emergencies.

Why children in emergencies are out of school

Currently, the 75 million children aged 3 to 18 years living in 35 crisis-affected countries are in the most desperate need of educational support. This includes 17 million refugee and internally displaced children who are fleeing disaster and conflict. Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, South Sudan and Central African Republic have forced a generation of children and young people out of school, with little prospect of returning.

Did you know? Only 2% of all humanitarian funding goes towards education.

In Syria, 6 years into the conflict, 2 million children are out of school, as are over half of the 1.4 million refugee children and young people who have fled Syria into neighbouring countries. When I visited the Turkish-Syrian border earlier this year I was outraged, though perhaps not surprised, to learn only 25% of Syrian refugees living outside of refugee camps are attending school. The reasons for this are complex and varied:

  • Syrian children don’t speak Turkish and face difficulty integrating into the Turkish school system.
  • As a result of their country’s civil war, they’ve often already missed 2 or 3 years of school, and don’t have the support they need to catch up.
  • Girls are often married off to Turkish men, as their families think this will protect their daughters and better integrate them into Turkish society.
  • Boys, often the only males left in the household, are expected to provide for the family and thus, stop attending school

Why education matters

A girl standing in front of a chalk board.

Education is a powerful tool helping refugee children in Cameroon, like 13-year-old Nastou, move past the trauma of the ongoing war in their home country, Central African Republic.

Did you know less than 2% of humanitarian funding goes towards education, despite the fact that children themselves consistently prioritize education above all else when asked about their greatest needs during times of crisis? There still seems to be a very narrow perception that education is a nice to have, not a need to have in times of crisis, that food, water, shelter and sanitation take precedent. And although all of those things are essential during times of crisis, I reject the notion that education is not just as important.

“Education in emergencies is often a humanitarian afterthought, despite the fact that it has been demonstrated as the most effective way to normalize children’s lives and help them recover from trauma.”

It is incomprehensible that education in emergencies is often a humanitarian afterthought, despite the fact that it has been demonstrated as the most effective way to normalize children’s lives and help them recover from trauma, teach them how to stay healthy and safe, and ensure they don’t become a generation lost to early and forced marriage, sexual exploitation, radicalization and a myriad of other dangers which education can mitigate. For girls, who are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation during times of crisis, education can play a significant role in protecting them and ensuring they have hope and future opportunities.

The Government of Canada has a long history of supporting and advocating for education in emergencies. It has been instrumental in developing the Education Cannot Wait Fund, to be launched at the World Humanitarian Summit. This Fund has bold and ambitious targets to address some of the massive gaps, and I sincerely hope to continue seeing Canada playing a leadership role to ensure all girls and boys affected by crisis are able to learn and thrive.