In the year 2000 every world leader committed to getting all children into primary education by the end of 2015. But 59 million young people are still out of school – and more than half of them live in conflict and emergency settings.
Girls are hit hardest by these conditions as gender bias, safety concerns and limited resources result in girls disproportionally missing out on school. The latest figures from UNESCO show that girls living in conflict-affected areas are 90 per cent more likely to be out of school than their peers in non-conflict settings.
We must not give up on the girls who deserve an education
And sadly the situation shows no signs of abating. From Syria and Iraq to South Sudan and the Central African Republic, recent conflicts have created more displaced children and more child refugees than at any time since the Second World War.
Girls fleeing Syria, a country with near universal education before the crisis, now face being married as child brides instead of continuing their education. In Jordan, one in every four marriages between Syrian refugees involves a girl under 18, double the figure in 2012. Economic opportunities are scarce for families in host countries and marrying a daughter is seen as a way of providing for them amidst terrible circumstances. Some feel that child marriage is the best way to protect their female children from sexual violence and ease pressures on the family resources.
However, we know that girls who do not finish their education have far fewer economic opportunities and worse health outcomes. These girls are also overwhelmingly from poorer families – so child brides that are poor when they marry are more likely to remain poor.
But there is hope for these girls. Hope that an innovative pilot project will soon be implemented across the region. In Lebanon 200,000 Syrian refugee children went back to school this September as part of a unique double shift programme where Syrian children use existing Lebanese schools in the afternoons and evenings.
Barriers that we have fought hard to overcome to get girls into the classroom are often built back up in times of crisis
Supported by the Lebanese Government and international NGOs it enables them to receive a formal education and extra support to overcome language barriers. It is a start, but there are over a million more children across Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon who are not currently in school and we need international funding to expand the programme.
Barriers that we have fought hard to overcome to get girls into the classroom are often built back up in times of crisis. But we must not give up on the girls who deserve an education. If the journey to school is more dangerous we must provide safe passage so they are able to travel without fear. If there are a lack of female teachers they must be funded and trained. If there is forced marriage we must protect the girls who are too young to wed.
School can be a lifeline for children in times of distress, providing a sense of normality and routine and valuable lifesaving lessons about basic health alongside a formal education. It is an outrage that last year only 2 per cent of emergency funding went towards education and children themselves are demanding more. Girls and boys around the world have led the charge and now 10 million people have signed the #UpForSchool petition – which demands world leaders provide an education for every child – and I am committed to making sure that all children, whatever their circumstances are able to fulfil their potential.