NAIROBI, 12 October 2021 – UNICEF and the African Council of Religious Leaders - Religions for Peace (ACRL-RfP) on Tuesday 5, October, convened an Interfaith virtual conference this week to advocate for the safe reopening of all schools in Eastern and Southern Africa and to keep them open.
The online event was a follow-up to the two-day Faith and Science in Conversation Conference on the COVID-19 pandemic at the end of March 2021 and brought together stakeholders from seven countries in the region, from multi-faith religious leaders to civil society organizations, academics, and technical experts. The seven countries involved were: Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In total, more than 140 participants joined the Interfaith conference.
UNICEF and ACRL-RfP are concerned that an estimated 32 million children in the region are out of school either because of the closures or having failed to return once their schools re-opened. Challenges on access cover both public and private schools, the latter also being an important service provider in education.
School closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic present an unprecedented risk to children’s education, protection, and well-being. School closures have the most significant negative impact on the most vulnerable children who are far less likely to have access to remote learning and other vital school health and nutrition services and more likely to be at risk of violence, abuse, neglect, child labour, teenage pregnancies and child marriage.
At the virtual Interfaith conference, UNICEF and the ACRL-RfP strongly advocated for governments to reopen and keep all schools operational, even in communities with high rates of COVID-19 – acknowledging all adequate safety measures, especially ventilation, but also hygiene, distancing and use of masks, are in place. Stakeholders also noted the importance of more budget allocation for quality education to finance COVID-19 safety protocols and to run community engagement programmes to bring all learners back to schools, including those that had dropped out before COVID-19.
On a related issue of COVID-19 vaccinations, UNICEF and ACRL-RfP agreed on the importance of ensuring COVID-19 vaccines reach the most vulnerable immediately – such as the elderly – and frontline workers, including teachers – with faith based ACRL-RfP members committing that they would encourage their congregants and the wider public to get vaccinated.