“Back to School:” A Very Heavy Lift, for Far Too Many Children

Dr. Susan M. Blaustein
Girls’ Day in Madurai, India

At what can be a joyous back-to-school moment, replete with snaps of proud parents, beautiful children in new school shoes and gleaming, expectant faces crowding into class pictures, it’s worth reflecting on five threats to children’s right to learn, and on how lucky those of us are who have been free and able to educate our own.

Let’s start with the first and most existential threat to learning. At last reckoning, according to UNICEF, 31 million children were forcibly displaced due to conflict and violence — either from their countries (13 million, with another 936,000 currently seeking asylum), or internally displaced (17 million). These 2017 numbers have risen dramatically in the 18 months since and do not include those children displaced by climate-related crises or natural disasters.

Once granted refugee status by the United Nations, children are likely to receive some schooling, as long as they are housed in camps operated by the UN or by one of the international agencies with which it partners. Any educator working with a humanitarian organization in a refugee setting knows how tough that work can be — aside from the obvious language, facility, and supply challenges, these children are wrestling, first and foremost, with the trauma of having been violently uprooted from their homes, perhaps having lost close family members to that violence, even having borne witness to that violence or to other atrocities. But at least the children may be lucky enough to spend blocks of time on a regular basis with a caring adult, a teacher with their interests at heart. Those without refugee status — children still fleeing violence or disaster, in hiding with relatives in cities or the countryside, all those in limbo for protracted periods of time that quickly turn into years of displacement — are usually much less lucky.

A second threat to children’s realizing their natural right to attend school is cost. UNESCO counted 264 million children out of school in 2017, with the wealthiest 3- and 4-year-olds five times as likely to attend school as their poorest peers. Despite extraordinary progress in nearly every country toward realizing the global goal of universal primary education, challenges persist for poor families, who must still cover their children’s school uniforms, school supplies, transport to and from school, even the fees so their children can sit for their end-of-year exams. Of those who attend, only four-fifths will complete elementary school, and fewer than half of all 15–17-year-olds will finish secondary school, with many dropping out in both cases for cost reasons.

The third threat to education is gender-specific. Many identified with certain cultures or religious traditions across the globe actually do not want their girls in school. Within their traditions, sons’ education often takes precedence, as the traditional caregiving role defining a young woman’s future persists unquestioned. Particularly for poor families, the economic incentive of marrying off a daughter for her dowry is especially compelling, automatically curtailing her options in the near term and her opportunities across a lifetime. These are some of the issues addressed in our new Girls’ Education and Empowerment Lab at WomenStrong International, as member organizations from Afghanistan, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Peru, and Guatemala implement programs aimed at reducing early marriage and changing gender norms in their communities.

The many reasons for not educating girls are multiple, complex, and often deeply held, but they prevail at a price: quite aside from denying girls and young women their right to realize their fullest potential, failing to educate half the population can cost countries between $15–30 trillion dollars in lifetime productivity and earnings, according to The World Bank. Although many countries have moved proactively and effectively to promote and ensure girls’ access to schooling, continued progress is far from assured. As the Trump administration strives to broker a separate peace with the Taliban that would permit the drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan, for example, Afghan women and their champions are deeply concerned about the future of their rights and their education there, a concern borne out by an alarming series of recent attacks on girls’ schools in Taliban-held territory.

The fourth threat to learning, pure and simple, is educational injustice: that is, the vast differences in the quality of education delivered to rich vs. poor schools and, in the U.S., South Africa, and elsewhere, to black and brown children’s vs. white children’s schools. From the quality of teaching, to the quality and maintenance of school facilities, to the quality of and access to updated textbooks, curricula, extra-curricular activities, school supplies, computers and Internet technology, and supportive resources, these differences are often so extreme as to constitute a fundamental violation of the right to an education for children in severely under-resourced settings.

Finally, a profound threat to education today is many governments’ increasing refusal to tell our children the truth — the truth of their history, the truth about government actions and inaction, the scientific truths explaining our past, describing our present, and forecasting our future. From India to Turkey to Brazil to Texas, the constant, insidious subversion of truth, and the doctrinaire interpolation of sheer falsehoods and propaganda into curricula from elementary school to university, undermine the factual basis of students’ understanding of the world, their ability to think critically, and their capacity to listen to, debate with, or learn from those holding different views.

Displacement, poverty, being a girl, being discriminated against, being lied to: these five threats to universal education jeopardize our future, our children’s future, the future of work, of peace, of our planet.

We need to reach out to others to help change gender norms, as we do at WomenStrong, and to help provide girls and boys of all income levels, races, and ethnicities with expanded pathways toward better lives.

We need to be on the lookout for the telltale signs of these threats, to call them out as we spot them, and to fight fiercely for the right to learn. This fight is imperative, if we are ever to build the world we envisage — one where those joyous back-to-school moments are experienced by all children and families, everywhere.

Dr. Susan M. Blaustein

Written by

Founder & Executive Director of WomenStrong International. Director of Millennium Cities Initiative at Columbia University.

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