In the last decade, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have invested considerable resources and political capital to bring more children into the classroom.
Most impressively, out-of-school rates for primary school children have plummeted, often by as much as half, bringing hope and new opportunity to millions.
But in recent years, progress has stalled. 4.3 million primary-aged children and 2.9 million lower secondary-aged children are still not in school. If we include one year of pre-primary education – the foundation on which a child’s future learning is built – a staggering 12.3 million children across 20 countries are being left behind.
Who are these children? Broadly speaking, they are the poorest, the girls, those who live in rural areas and those from minority communities. They are the millions of children whose lives have been torn apart and whose schools have been destroyed by conflict. And they are the large number of lower secondary-aged children, mostly boys, who drop out every year.
What keeps them out of school? Sometimes it’s poverty and poor infrastructure – families can’t afford to send their children to school, or the schools are too far away, or of low quality, with badly trained teachers, poor learning outcomes and miserable, even dangerous, environments. Sometimes children are driven out by corporal punishment in the classroom, by language difficulties or by discrimination. And worst of all, sometimes families don’t, or won’t, recognize the value of an education – particularly for their daughters.
These are the findings from studies carried out in nine MENA countries within the framework of the Out-of-School Children Initiative. They paint a complex picture of overlapping challenges that will require all of us – governments, the UN, NGOs and the international community, along with specialists in the fields of education, healthcare, and child welfare – to work together to come up with new and innovative ideas for bringing more children into the classroom.
Winning the fight against education exclusion won’t be easy – but armed with the evidence and findings in this report, we are in a much stronger position. We can target money and programmes where they are most needed – particularly among the most vulnerable and marginalized groups. We can advocate for the most effective public policies and legal changes at the national level, and we can put in place the strategies and systems we need at the local level to track and evaluate results.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and we can be proud of our success in getting more children into school. But we must also be mindful of our remaining commitment to those children whose right to a quality education has not yet been realised.
It is time to finish our homework.
Maria Calivis UNICEF MENA Regional Director