Realizing the right to education during the global health crisis

The COVID-19 global health pandemic has illuminated disparities experienced by children across the world. If managing learning continuity has been difficult for many countries, what are African countries doing in order to uphold the right to education during this crisis?

September 28, 2020 by Anita Nyanjong, Advocacy CSO Forum to the Africa Union Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and Linda Oduor- Noah, The East African Center for Human Rights
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5 minutes read
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Pumla Dlamini is a grade 6 student at Usutu Forest Primary school in the Hhohho region. She currently attends school virtually through Google class. Credit: Kingsley Gwebu / Unicef / Mai 2020
Pumla Dlamini is a grade 6 student at Usutu Forest Primary school in the Hhohho region in Eswatini. She attends school virtually through Google class.
Kingsley Gwebu / Unicef / Mai 2020

The COVID-19 global health pandemic has illuminated disparities experienced by children across the world. These disparities are more pronounced in Africa where millions of people have limited or no access to basic socio-economic rights.

The first case of COVID-19 in Africa was reported in Egypt in February 2020. As the scourge spread in Africa, governments closed schools and sent children home. Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia and Rwanda swiftly developed COVID-19 rapid response strategies to enable learning continuity.

Teachers were called on to adapt to teaching via text message and social media, including through YouTube and WhatsApp. In Ethiopia for example, the government partnered with a local television station, AfriHealth, to broadcast education programs for children across the country. Governments in Rwanda and Kenya embraced the use of radio programming featuring curriculum topics on education for children.

Upholding the right to education during the COVID-19 crisis

However, managing learning continuity has been difficult: Save for Tanzania, schools across the region remain closed and the transition to digital platforms has been fraught with challenges. Public schools struggle with lack of infrastructure and limited understanding of online pedagogy.

Similarly, households grapple with inadequate access to electricity, internet or even access to televisions and radios as has been found in Ethiopia, where the majority of the population live in rural areas. According to one study across 10 African countries, less than 15% of school leaders were keeping in touch with at least 80% of their pupils.

Children across the continent are therefore not learning optimally or consistently with ‘access’ favoring the digitally literate and privileged, as in Ethiopia or older students and those attending private schools, as in Kenya where 24.6% of households with learners are unable to have their children continue learning.

School closures have come with higher incidences of teenage pregnancy, female genital mutilation, early marriage, child abuse and child labor across the continent. Similarly, the Joining Forces Coalition noted the increased vulnerability of children in Uganda and further observations were made of vulnerable populations, such as Uganda’s 30,000 street children, becoming increasingly marginalized during this period.

Aside from this, the non-state sector, which enrolls the majority of children in low-income settlements, is also contracting with many schools closing permanently.

State responses to these emerging challenges have been varied: In Kenya, the government responded by launching a Community-Based Learning Program. However, even this has had its hurdles with the rollout stalled due to a court ruling that halted implementation.

Education financing

Prior to the current crisis, provision of education in many sub-Saharan African countries faced challenges as indicated by the over 30 million children out of school. Education has therefore been a priority. In Kenya for instance, the sector has received the highest sectoral budget allocation at approximately 5.2% of GDP in 2018/2019.

Most other East African countries have however not been quite at par, with Uganda spending 2.52% of its GDP and Tanzania and Rwanda spending 3.9% and 3.1% respectively in 2018.

Despite the high investment and progress made, most East African countries remain far from attaining SDG 4. As a result, human rights bodies have consistently demanded substantial increases and prioritization of education financing, especially targeting the most marginalized, as was observed in Tanzania’s and Rwanda’s Reviews by the Committee on the Rights of the Child and in Kenya’s review by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR).

Additionally, countries in the region continue to lose substantial resources through corruption, debt servicing and tax incentives that could have instead been used to improve education access and quality for thousands of children.

In response, African civil society organizations (CSOs), led by the CSO Forum, including the Eastern Africa Child Rights network and Child Rights Network of Southern Africa, presented a statement to the special envoys appointed by the Africa Union in June 2020, to mobilize international economic support in fighting COVID-19 by negotiating debt on behalf of Africa. The CSO Forum further called upon African governments to put in place measures to ensure children continue accessing education within the context of COVID 19.

Re-imagining public education

Current forecasts state that low- and middle-income countries are likely to freeze or reduce education expenditure as a result of the current global health crisis. UNESCO goes as far as to estimate that approximately $210 billion will be cut from education budgets globally, due to the impending recession.

However, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Education, the right to education must be guaranteed even in crisis, as espoused in our continental blueprints on the right to education such as Article 17 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights and Article 11 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The current pandemic should in no way act as vector of retrogression in this regard as outlined in the Abidjan Principles number 43 to 46.

To uphold the right to education and mitigate the effects of learning loss will require that governments make deliberate efforts towards mobilizing funds and other resources for education, despite competing needs. To do any less, will be courting disaster.

Building back better will require our imagination and dedication in calling for budgets that will construct resilient education systems that expand on the ambition outlined in Africa's Agenda 2063.

Governments may be tempted to invest primarily in various technologies to enhance the quality of education as has happened in Rwanda. However, States should be advised to prioritize the softer aspects of quality: Staff and systems will need to be attuned to meeting the needs of the student that will return to school, be it the child who received private tuition or the teenage mother and father, rescued child- bride, or firstborn who now shares the parental responsibilities.

Resilience will also call for investing in community assets to foster the education agenda, and will require improvements in inter-sectoral collaboration, to better demonstrate how improving education outcomes leads to improved health and livelihoods.

Lastly, resilience will require investment in transparency, public participation and accountability, ensuring that education budgets and plans prioritize vulnerable children. These and other recommendations are further outlined in this call to action signed by 190 organizations.

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