On Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, Remember Schools

Thursday, April 28 is Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day in the United States. Started in 1993 as Take Our Daughters to Work Day, the movement began in response to research indicating that girls’ lack of self-esteem led to poor academic performance and life choices. My own employer has an array of activities designed to stimulate and appeal to children, including hands-on STEM and oratory activities. The day concludes with ice cream. My children can’t wait to participate.

This celebration of potential and opportunity is premised on the assumption that school is the humdrum default, to be taken for granted on a weekday in April. It ignores the reality that much of the world needs a Take Our Daughters and Sons to School Day.

As of 2013, 124 million children and young teens worldwide were not in school, notwithstanding Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides that every child has the right to an education. Children are kept at home to care for younger siblings or animals. They are kept at home because of prohibitive fees for books and uniforms. They are kept at home when violence and instability cause parents to fear for their safety.

According to UNICEF, when children are not in school, they are more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation or recruitment by armed groups, as well as early marriage and diminished economic opportunity later in life. In the town of Douentza, in central Mali, where I direct an interdisciplinary health and human rights project, violent jihadists occupied the middle and high schools for most of 2012, and the schools were inoperative. When the French intervened militarily, the schools were bombed to smithereens. The high school reopened this year. The middle school has yet to be rebuilt, and middle school students cram into the primary school facility.

When I visited Douentza last year, we walked around the rubble of the middle school. The jihadists had placed a landmine at the entrance, and an enormous hole in the earth remained. As I skirted the edge of the hole, fluttering papers caught my eye. Quizzes, exams and homework assignments of a lost childhood, abandoned in fear during the occupation, now left to disintegrate. “Mediocre,” reads one teacher’s notation in red pen. “7.5 out of 20,” reads another.

I asked our Malian colleague if I could take a quiz with me. “Why not?” he shrugged. “There’s no use for it now.”

The quiz now sits on my desk in my office in Chicago, a reminder of one child’s limitless potential lost to violence and extremism. Tomorrow, I’ll bring my kids to work, enjoy their enrichment activities, and share an ice cream with them. But I’ll remind them that school is the key to the castle, and they’re lucky to have it.

Juliet S. Sorensen is a clinical associate professor of law with the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

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