Education against the odds: Children living in crisis want the chance to go to school

A new report published by Save the Children shows that children living in the world’s toughest places wanted one thing above all else: the chance to learn.

September 24, 2019 by Rasha Daya, Save the Children
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4 minute read
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Aminata* and her mother had to flee the conflict in Niafunké in Mali to seek refuge in a safer area of the Mopti region. She joined a learning project and continued her education. Mali.
Aminata* and her mother had to flee the conflict in Niafunké in Mali to seek refuge in a safer area of the Mopti region. She joined a learning project and continued her education. Mali.
Save the Children

Since the war started in Syria, I have witnessed huge turmoil in my country. For eight long years, Syrians have fled one city for another, running away from armed attacks and violence. Millions took refuge in neighbouring countries, hoping desperately for safety and security. The situation is heartbreaking and challenging for everyone involved, but we always keep our hopes high for a better future.

I believe that my future and the future of all displaced people around the world will be built on education. It is the best strategy that will create a solid foundation towards a better future for my country. Yet sadly, it is the strategy we seem to be drifting away from with every day.

A distressing visit to a Syrian refugee settlement

Thanks to my work with Save the Children, earlier this year I had the chance to visit a Syrian refugee settlement in Lebanon. Hundreds of Syrian refugees were living in an overcrowded block under construction in the most deprived circumstances I have ever seen. Children were playing out in the open in a very harsh and difficult environment.

The visit tore my heart apart and made me so worried. Most Syrian children living in the camp were not allowed access to formal or informal education, although an education is what they wanted the most.

Parents were doing all they could, sometimes depriving themselves of food, in order to afford transportation cost for their children to attend schools where they’d secured places. I stood in the camp haunted by the questions: How will these children survive in our world? What future is waiting ahead for them and our country?

Above all else they wanted to go to school. Exactly like children affected by humanitarian crises all around the world.

Children prioritize education

For ‘Education Against the Odds’ published today by Save the Children, I reviewed the results of studies that asked 1,215 children living through humanitarian crises about their priority needs. The surveys were conducted with children living through conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo; children struggling to survive in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; unaccompanied child refugees from Syria and Afghanistan; Rohingya children in refugee camps in Bangladesh; and children internally displaced by fighting in Ethiopia and South Sudan.

The results are stark and surprising. Even when children were overwhelmed by crisis and displacement, nearly one third (29%) identified education as their top priority. That was more than twice the number who identified food (12%), health (12%), or water and sanitation (12%) as their primary concern.

Top priorities for children in crisis

Education Against the Odds shows that, time and time again, children living in the world’s toughest places wanted one thing above all else: the chance to go to school.

The report also tells individual stories of children engaged in that struggle – from those living in conflict zones or facing environmental disasters, to those forced to flee, work or marry, to children with disabilities and living in remote areas. You can read their stories extracted from the report in the slideshow below.

A young girl sits at a desk, hopeful for the future.
In September 2018, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia triggered a tsunami. At least 1,200 learning facilities from early childhood centers to secondary schools have been affected, impacting 184,094 students and 12,988 teachers. Marzela’s house was destroyed in the earthquake and her education was interrupted. She is now back at school and feels positive about the future. She hopes to become a teacher. “I like mostly science, Indonesian. and math, because in science we learn about nature, in Indonesian we learn how to write properly, and in math we learn how to count.”
Credit: Save the Children
A woman walks while carrying a child and one follows close behind.
Today, there are around 765 million boys and girls who got married when they were children. Children affected by early marriage are frequently forced to drop out of school because of cultural traditions and gender inequalities. However, some insist on learning. Abida, 17, has been married to her husband Ambouka, 43, in Niger since she was either 12 or 13, and has two children. She left school in the first grade because of her marriage and works as a homemaker caring for her family. She now continues her learning by attending a Literacy Boost program. “I’m going to school because I want my life to be brighter and so that I know what I’m doing and I know about the world,” says Abida.
Credit: Save the Children
Babita, a 13-year-old at work at the brick kilns of Kathmandu.
Around 152 million children under 18 are targets of child labor, often working in hazardous conditions. While working children are at risk of dropping out of school, it is striking that around 68% of child laborers aged 5–14 manage to attend school alongside their work. Babita, 13, works at the brick kilns of Kathmandu where she makes bricks and laboriously stacks them into piles. She goes to a children’s club, where she can keep learning, combining work with school “At first, I used to miss my village very much,” says Babita. “But now I’m going to school. Our school teachers are very friendly – they encourage us to engage in different activities and they give us more opportunities.”
Credit: Save the Children
Ak, 17, studies hard so one day his voice can be heard.
Roughly 500,000 Rohingya children in Bangladesh have no access to a formal education and are not permitted to attend Bangladeshi public school. Nevertheless, around 145,000 Rohingya children have managed to join informal uncredited classes and continue their learning. Ak*, 17, is a Rohingya refugee boy who fled Myanmar to India with his family. Because of persecution, Ak’s education stopped at Grade 4 when he was in Myanmar. Desperate to continue learning, AK snuck into Grade 5 classes in India and is now in Grade 8 and loving his education. “I have a hope. I want to be a successful man whose voice can be heard. I want to rise up to be big enough to reach out to all these people. I should be able to tell people not to take away children’s rights, to educate children and to tell and convince people about this.”
Credit: Save the Children
Seima, 5, sits with the floating village she lives in behind her.
Children living in the floating villages in Cambodia often miss out on schooling because of the changing weather conditions from rainy seasons to drought, which makes it challenging to get to local schools. Seima*, 5, lives in a floating home in Cambodia. She goes to a floating pre-school, which she loves. Although she lives in a floating village, surrounded by water from all sides, she and her parents are determined she gets the opportunity to learn. “When I grow up, I want to be a teacher, a nurse and a doctor!” says Seima.
Credit: Save the Children
Renaldo, 11, sits in front a destroyed building, the aftermath of cyclone Kenneth.
In Mozambique, 3,400 classrooms were destroyed or damaged by Cyclone Idai in March 2019, interrupting education for more than 305,000 children. Despite the destruction all around, children in Mozambique sought to continue their schooling trying to normalize their lives. Renaldo*, 11, was inside his house when it collapsed after cyclone Kenneth hit his community. His school was badly damaged, and he lost most of his schoolbooks and clothes. Renaldo joined temporary learning spaces to make sure he doesn’t miss out on learning. “I just want to get back to studying and going to school. We’re going back to school on Monday. I’m happy because of this. School is important for me because it’s a way to get a job. I like English because I have plans to be a [tour] guide in the future.”
Credit: Save the Children
Ishtiyaakh, 14, excited to join the formal school system.
The latest 2015 estimates show that there are more than 100 million street children worldwide. Children living in slums are often left out of the formal education system because of poverty, bullying and discrimination. Despite the harsh environment they live in, many street children go against all odds and, alongside their work, succeed in getting an education Ishtiyaakh, 14, migrated with his family to Mumbai from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and moved into a slum community. He attended Save the Children’s Blue Bus mobile learning center every day after working at the rubbish tip. After attending the learning center for six months, Ishtiyaakh was able to join the formal school system. “I didn’t know how to get back to school,” says Ishtivaakh. “Blue Bus helped me get admitted. I feel happy as I have started to go to school.”
Credit: Save the Children
Jiawei, born with cerebral palsy, happy as he holds his school materials.
Most children with disabilities globally are excluded from learning environments and their communities. Stigma and societal attitudes frequently mean parents choose to withdraw them from education. Jiawei was born with cerebral palsy in a village in Sichuan province in China. He was excluded from the education system until he was 14, when he joined a school designed to include children with disabilities. “Studying is the first step to carry on my dreams,” says Jiawei. “It will allow me to find a job and to save some money, so that I can open my own small grocery shop.”
Credit: Save the Children
Aminata, who fled the conflict in Niafunké, is happy to finally continue her education.
Conflict-related violence is having a heavy toll on children’s education in Mali. 920 schools in the country are closed, mainly due to insecurity, depriving more than 179,000 children of their fundamental right to education. Aminata* and her mother had to flee the conflict in Niafunké to seek refuge in a safer area of the Mopti region. She joined a learning project and continued her education. “Before I enrolled in school, I wasn’t at all well. The school is very important and has many advantages to prepare for the future. In the future, I would like to become a doctor.”
Credit: Save the Children

* names have been changed to protect the children's identity

More funding is needed for education in emergencies

Education Against the Odds closes with a series of recommendations to governments and the international community to deliver on the global commitment to give every child the chance to learn, including by closing the education funding gap that stops children from accessing a quality education.

We now know that education is a critical lifesaving and life sustaining service for children in emergencies. However, our efforts to actually provide children caught up in emergencies with an education are limited by a persistent lack of funding. Despite some progress and the leadership of donors like the European Union, education still receives less than 2% of all humanitarian funding, and development aid for education is in decline.

We still have the chance to protect children’s hopes this week at the UN General Assembly. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak about my experience advocating for education for all refugee boys and girls at the Leave No One Behind: Accelerating the SDGs through Quality Education event co-hosted by Education Cannot Wait and the Education Commission tomorrow.

It is critical that donor governments, private sector companies and foundations urgently increase their funding for education in emergencies through Education Cannot Wait and that governments of GPE partner countries that host refugee and displaced children include them in their education sector plans. 

This week I hope to witness strong new financial commitments from world leaders, which will change the lives of refugee boys and girls.

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