Opening a world of possibilities for vulnerable children in Jordan through Education

How introducing school busing, amongst other measures, is supporting some of the most vulnerable children in Jordan to access education

Photo: UNICEFJordan/AyaKhatib

By Maria Zabaneh

Back-to-school time evokes vivid childhood memories for most — setting early alarms after the summer vacation, the morning rush, excitement mixed with anxiety, and the smell of possibility in the air. For some children — especially the many Syrian refugee children living in Jordan — that sense of possibility can be met with difficulties and barriers. In Jordan, one of the biggest challenges for many families is not being able to afford the costs associated with sending their children to school, especially if they live too far away to easily walk to the local school.

A long distance to school, lack of financial resources, and overcrowding at nearby schools can force families to put their children’s education on hold. Children who are impacted by all these factors are at the highest risk of not attending school. These barriers can hit girls especially hard, as parents, fearing for their daughter’s safety, may not allow her to travel long distances to school on her own.

Barriers to education for vulnerable children in Jordan

With thousands of children out of school, in August 2017, UNICEF and its NGO partners mobilized 600 volunteers to go door-to-door to visit families with children as part of the nationwide Back to School campaign, targeting the most vulnerable locations. The volunteers talked to parents and families to understand their challenges, explain the importance of sending all their children to school, and how UNICEF and partners can support.

From the 16,710 out-of-school children reached through the campaign, nearly half (46 per cent) felt they did not have the registration documents they needed to enroll their children. To overcome this barrier, Jordan’s Ministry of Education passed new regulations to allow all children to enroll, irrespective of their documentation status. A further 16 per cent said the children needed to work to support their families, another issue for which UNICEF is developing an integrated response.

Meanwhile, 11 per cent said that that school was simply too far and another 11 per cent that they cannot afford the indirect costs related to school — like uniforms and transportation. As simple as it may sound, school buses could make all the difference for these children.

The most vulnerable children

The issue of lack of transportation to school is particularly acute for those living in highly vulnerable temporary settlements. These families often live near farms where they work as agricultural labourers, moving from one area of the country to another depending on the harvest season. Working in exchange for a spot of land, they often live without electricity or proper sanitation, extremely isolated and far from education and health facilities. Parents and children alike are left vulnerable to exploitation. In Jordan, it is estimated that over 10,000 highly vulnerable Jordanians and Syrians live in such settlements.

Many families living in these settlements are Syrian refugee with limited access to services and employment options, making them amongst the most vulnerable people in the country. Most of their children are out of school and engage in child labour — partly since their parents felt that they are seen as less likely to be detained if they are found to be working. The children are often the breadwinners of the family, earning at peak harvest seasons, an average of JOD 112 (approximately USD 160) a month.

For children living in these communities who manage to enroll in school, their daily journey to class can be arduous. The nearest school can be 15 to 20 km away. This is further complicated by two other factors: first, most of these families lack the resources to pay for transport to school; and second, transportation services barely exist in these regions. The journey to school is dangerous and tough, and practically impossible for small children, girls who face harassment, and children with disabilities.

Seven year old Ali holds up an education pamphlet on his way to register for school for the first time. Ali used to work with his parents in a farm in Northern Jordan. With the school many kilometers away, they simply could not afford transportation costs. Photo: UNICEFJordan/AyaKhatib

In September 2017, UNICEF and its NGO partners made a commitment to bus every child living in temporary settlements who was willing to go to back to school this fall. With UNICEF and NGO staff on the ground working with 128 such communities, they have managed to build trust and to understand the dangers these families face. Many parents were reluctant to allow their children to take the bus to school. They were worried about safety and unaccustomed to bus systems. In response, UNICEF hired bus attendants from within the communities, which had two positive outcomes: safety of the children and economic empowerment of local community members.

A bus attendant hired by UNICEF’s NGOs partner checks the list of students every day, rides the bus with them to and fro, and makes sure all children are accounted for, when they return home. Photo: UNICEFJordan/AyaKhatib

Before the busing started, 642 children from the informal camps were enrolled in school. As of October 2017, enrollment amongst school-aged children from these marginalized communities has tripled, with 1,934 children going to school.

For all school children

While children living in informal settlements represent a highly vulnerable group, other children across Jordan in rural and urban communities also face barriers to education. Many children with disabilities, children who live too far away from school, very young children and, oftentimes, girls, miss out on education because they simply cannot get to school.

Addressing this barrier to education is critical. Even the most highly motivated of children would find insurmountable difficulty in a long and often unsafe walk to school.

Working closely with the Ministry of Education, UNICEF is planning to scale-up school transportation over the coming semester for children with disabilities and other vulnerable communities. A sustainable, nationwide solution to addressing this barrier will leverage existing services, through formalizing services and subsidizing them for those most in need. The aim is to achieve this through coordinated efforts and planning amongst national leadership, donors, local CBOs, international NGOS, the private sector, and the local communities.