‘Multiple bars keep children from schools’
By Waqar Gillani
LAHORE: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Country Representative to Pakistan Ingeborg Breines said on Thursday that economic, social, cultural and political barriers kept children away from school.
“In the worst situation, they all act together by erecting a wall that deprives children of education,” Mrs Breines told Daily Times.
Regarding the Education For All (EFA) Week being celebrated in April, she said UNESCO planned the EFA Week, beginning April 19-25 across the world including Pakistan, to achieve its EFA 2015 goal set by the United Nations. “An important activity of the week is a ‘Big Lobby’ of children before parliaments or their provincial, district and local governments.
She said in Pakistan, UNESCO started this work in collaboration with the Education Ministry and civil society groups.
Commenting on the EFA plan and the barriers to schooling, Mrs Breines said according to UNESCO researchers, education systems acted as barriers to schooling when they failed to make school an enjoyable and stimulating experience for all pupils. “More specifically, education systems exclude children when they fail to provide adequate school buildings and sufficient teachers, schools with basic necessities, such as water and separate toilets, desks and books,” she said.
“Educational contentment that is interesting and relevant, proper training and help for teachers, and an environment that is friendly and secure are necessary,” Mrs Breines said.
She said poverty, direct school costs, child laboratories, social and cultural barriers, gender biases, early marriage and pregnancy, violence, intolerance and discrimination in schools, coupled with crisis and emergencies, were factors that prevented parents from sending their children to schools.
“Nearly all children who are out of school are poor. Families cannot afford to pay for their children’s education and are often obliged to choose which child goes to school and which one stays at home or goes to work,” she said. She added that direct school costs also contributed to non-attendance and early dropouts. “And yet at least 101 countries are still charging fees for primary education.”
“According to the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2003-04, parents are the main employers of their own children,” she said, referring to child labour. She said that sometimes their work was paid, but mostly it was unpaid and took place within the household or at their family farms.
The report, Mrs Breines added, indicated regional variations in the incidence of child labour, with Africa taking top place (41 percent), followed by Asia (21 percent) and Latin America (17 percent). In Africa, population growth, a weak economy, famine and armed conflict contributed to enhancing the child labour rate and the school attendance low.
“According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), every year at least 9 million more girls than boys go without education. Yet female education is inextricably linked to other facets of human development: the health and status of women, early childhood, nutrition, water and sanitation and community empowerment,” the UN’s country representative said.
She also focused on early marriage and pregnancy. “As in several societies, it was traditional for girls to marry at a young age and in some countries as young as 14. But such early marriages mean that these girls must stop their schooling,” she said.
She said data from 1996 showed that in India, 38 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 were married. The same rule applied to pregnant girls who were generally forced to discontinue their schooling. “This deprives them of an education and vital information about health, birth control, HIV/AIDS etc.”
She said that violence, intolerance and discrimination in schools were common in many countries. “Girls are often primary victims, because they are subjected to harassment and sexual abuse by their teachers and sometimes faith healers.”
In Africa and parts of Asia, HIV/AIDS is forcing millions of children to drop out of school, either because they have lost their parents or they have to stay home and take care of sick relatives, or because they have to work to help their families. In some cases, the authorities concerned even force AIDS orphans out of school because of the prejudice and stigma associated with the disease.
Mrs Breines said UNESCO had recommended that governments should make universal primary education a political priority at the highest level, by declaring primary education free and compulsory for all children. She said it also recommended an increase in domestic funding to basic education to improve its quality; the use of education as an instrument for poverty reduction, the training and deployment of enough teachers and improvement in their working conditions, giving the families incentives to send children, especially girls, to school.
“Things such as stipends, free school meals, provision of textbooks and stationery, the school uniform etc promote female education because girls are more likely to be dropped out of schools,” she said.
She asked governments to ensure that schools accommodated all children regardless of their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, linguistic or other conditions. She stressed education for special children and children with special needs, including refugees and displaced children, orphans and working children, making educational content relevant to local cultural and economic contexts so that parents could see that education improved the quality of life.
She also underlined the need for development of non-formal approaches to learning such as community learning centres, where both adults and children could get basic education. “Such steps have been taken in several countries of the world including Uganda, Malawi, Brazil, Bangladesh, Guinea, Guatemala and Kosovo.”
She said that 36 percent (104 million) of children were not enrolled into primary schools. About two-thirds of them were girls, she added. “Almost all out-of-school children live in developing countries (73 percent) and most live in Africa (46 million) and in South and West Asia (44 million). These are the poorest regions with a large proportion of the population living on less than US$1 a day in the most heavily indebted countries,” she said.
“Some 1.8 million out-of-school children live in industrialised countries,” she said, adding that despite certain obstacles, progress was being made and children were being enrolled gradually into schools in several countries of the world.
“Also during the 1990s, the primary schooling rate in developing countries improved from 68 percent to 73 percent. Yet over 150 million in developing countries do not complete their five years of education,” Mrs Breines said, adding, “Of 155 developing countries, 66 countries have achieved, or are on track to achieve, universal primary education by 2015. The other 89, however, are unlikely to reach this goal over the next decade, according to a recent World Bank report.” She said at the current rate of progress, 100 million children would not be enrolled in primary schools by 2015.
The EFA Week 2004, she said, would focus on the world’s 100 million children who have no access to education. In this connection the ‘Big Lobby’ of children would be arranged on April 20 across the world. “In Pakistan, children will go to the Parliament House in Islamabad and the provincial assemblies and district and village councils to ask their elected representatives, in their own words, to do more to enroll all children in schools.
“The aim of the ‘Big Lobby’ is to raise awareness among parents and children of this fundamental human right, the denial of which makes children more vulnerable to poverty, hunger, violence, exploitation and diseases,” Mrs Breines said. She added that a lot of other activities had also been planned.
She asked parents, children, media, civil society groups and the government to participate in the week’s activities.
She praised the Punjab government for taking steps to achieve the EFA goal.