Africa’s forgotten crisis

YASMINE SHERIF

A few weeks ago, I travelled with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi to the Modale refugee site in the Nord-Ubangi province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). What we witnessed there was a profound humanitarian crisis that has left 4.7 million children and youth in need of urgent, life-saving, life-changing educational support.

Yasmine Sherif

Here on the frontlines of violence, forced displacement, climate change-induced disasters, and COVID-19, an entire generation of children are at risk of being left so far behind they will never catch up.

Fleeing the chaos and insecurity connected with last year’s presidential elections in the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR), they have fled on foot through dense forests, hiding from violent militias. They have crossed raging rivers. They’ve lost loved ones. These children are now living far from their homes, without enough food to eat, many on the verge of losing their last hope.

In CAR, one in every four schools is not functional because of fighting, and half of the country’s children are out of school. 70% of the CAR refugee children have never been to school in their entire life.

They are the lost girls and lost boys of Africa.

And these CAR refugee children are not just lost in the DRC. CAR refugees are flooding across the Central African Republic border into Cameroon, Chad, the DRC and other nations. Elsewhere in Africa, schools are being targeted for attacks and students, their teachers and their communities live in constant fear.

With no education – and no lifeline – this lost generation of young people has few options. Out-of-school girls are at higher risk of sexual exploitation, violence and early pregnancy. Boys may be forced to join armed groups, Boko Haram or turn to kidnapping as is happening in Nigeria. Families fearful for their daughters’ lives might force them into child marriage as a means to protect them.

We have both a legal and a moral obligation to protect the rights of every child against such violations. We, as a global community, can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening in countries like the Central African Republic and other crisis-affected countries in Africa.

So, what can be done?

For 30 years I’ve worked in and around the United Nations, whose Charter promised all generations to respect human rights, and to build a more peaceful, more prosperous world. Every government is part of this multilateral body and every world leader has thus made a commitment to live by its principles and values.

We’ve made progress, but it has been uneven. The cycle of poverty, violence and forced displacement – all exacerbated by the pandemic – appears never-ending.

We must take bold action and courageous steps to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. Through SDG4, governments across the world have agreed to ensure equitable, inclusive quality education for every girl and boy by 2030. Without an inclusive and continued quality education, all the other Sustainable Development Goals will be impossible to achieve. Education is the very foundation for reducing poverty, achieving gender-equality and creating a more just and peaceful world.

The UN’s global fund for education in emergencies, Education Cannot Wait, has now achieved a proven record of results, reaching children and youth in the darkest spots and most dangerous places on earth. These are countries where armed conflict, climate change and forced displacement are deeply intertwined.

In connecting the dots, it is clear that the only way to achieve all the global goals – and to reach the Paris Climate Agreement targets and other global accords ¬– is to begin with education. Education is both foundational and transformational.

ECW Director Yasmine Sherif visits the Modale ‘Settlement of Hope’ with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It is a daunting task. COVID-19 has now pushed some 128 million crisis-affected girls and boys worldwide out of an education. That’s more than the total populations of the United Kingdom and Canada combined.

Providing these children and youth with an education is not only a legal and moral obligation. It is a game changer and a tipping point. It’s an investment in more resilient economies. It’s an investment in global peace. It’s an investment in local efforts to build strong nations. It’s an investment in our common humanity and our common future. Eventually, it will cost us more not to invest in them.

On our visit to Modale, I met with hundreds of young girls and boys whose only hope in this world is to be able to attend school, learn, develop and become economically self-reliant. School for them means a place safe from attacks – especially if governments step up efforts on the global Safe Schools Declaration. For this lost generation of Africa, school means a chance to learn to read and write. It is a chance for girls and boys to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses and political leaders. It’s a chance for them to not only build back better, but also to build forward together. For these children, education is their hope for a better future.

I urge world leaders, public and private sector donors and other key stakeholders to turn their eyes to the grave violations against children and youth happening every day throughout Africa. We cannot afford to leave a single one of these young people behind.

Urgent financing by donors in the tens of millions of dollars each is needed, and it is needed now. Because if we cannot do it now, when can we do it? And if we let their education wait, what price will they and we all pay?

Together, we can take action now. Their education and our humanity cannot wait. We need to act, as Martin Luther King Jr once said, with “the fierce urgency of now.”

Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait


  • This article is republished from IPS and can be read here.

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