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UN chief calls for worldwide commitment to transforming education

Displaced Ukrainian children play and learn at Kharkiv’s Spilno Child Spot, run by UNICEF and partners.
© UNICEF/Christina Pashkina
Displaced Ukrainian children play and learn at Kharkiv’s Spilno Child Spot, run by UNICEF and partners.

UN chief calls for worldwide commitment to transforming education

Culture and Education

Commitments made last year at a landmark UN conference to transform education globally must be translated into action, Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday in his message to mark the International Day of Education.

He called for countries to deliver education systems “that can support equal societies, dynamic economies and the limitless dreams of every learner in the world.”

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Data from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) shows that some 244 million boys and girls are still out of school this year.

Additionally, 70 per cent of 10-year-olds in low and middle-income countries are unable to read and understand a simple text.

Potential in peril

The theme for the International Day this year is “to invest in people, prioritize education”.

Special focus is being given to girls and women in Afghanistan who have been prohibited from attending secondary school and university in the wake of the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

The Secretary-General said education is a fundamental human right and the bedrock of societies, economies, and every person’s potential.

However, he warned that this potential will “wither on the vine” without adequate investment.

“It has always been shocking to me that education has been given such a low priority in many government policies and in international cooperation instruments,” he commented.

Reimagining the classroom

Mr. Guterres recalled that at the Transforming Education Summit, held last September, countries gathered together to “reimagine education systems so every learner accesses the knowledge and skills required to succeed.”

More than 130 nations made commitments to ensure that universal quality education becomes a central pillar of public policies and investments.

The Summit outcomes included a Call to Action on Educational Investment, as well as the establishment of the International Financing Facility for Education.  

Several global initiatives were launched there, including to mobilize support for education in crises settings, girls’ education, transforming teaching, and ‘green’ education systems.

End discriminatory laws

“Now is the time for all countries to translate their Summit commitments into concrete actions that create supportive and inclusive learning environments for all students,” said Mr. Guterres.

“Now is also the time to end all discriminatory laws and practices that hinder access to education,” he added.

“I call on the de facto authorities in Afghanistan in particular to reverse the outrageous and self-defeating ban on access to secondary and higher education for girls.” 

Young girls attend class at a UNICEF-supported school in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (file)
© UNICEF/Mark Naftalin
Young girls attend class at a UNICEF-supported school in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (file)

‘Serious attack on human dignity’

UNESCO has dedicated the International Day of Education to all the girls and women in Afghanistan who have been denied the right to learn, study and teach.

“The Organization condemns this serious attack on human dignity and on the fundamental right to education,” Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement. 

Currently, 80 per cent, or 2.5 million school-aged Afghan girls and young women are out of school.  This includes 1.2 million who have been banned from secondary schools and universities following the decision of the de facto authorities.

Ms. Azoulay reported that her agency continues to work in Afghanistan, in close liaison with local communities, to ensure that schooling can continue, whether by means of literacy courses or via radio.

“UNESCO also remains the primary source for the monitoring of education data in Afghanistan, particularly data related to higher education.  We will continue to mobilize the international community in order to uphold Afghan girls’ and women’s right to education,” she added.

‘A basic human right’

Other UN agencies and senior officials have signalled their support for the universal right to education.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, took to Twitter to urge governments to ensure everyone has an opportunity to learn.

“There’s no excuse for holding #education hostage,” he wrote.  “It's a basic #humanright - NOT a privilege - and a powerful investment for ending poverty, promoting justice, driving sustainable development & building (world) peace.”

‘Let women and girls learn’

The UN humanitarian affairs agency, OCHA, recalled that nearly 200 million crisis-affected children and adolescents are either out of school or not learning.

OCHA tweeted that “especially in times of crisis, education must be prioritized so that no one is left behind!” 

In a separate tweet, the agency underscored that “women and girls in Afghanistan belong in schools” with the simple message “Let women and girls learn.”

OCHA chief Martin Griffiths is currently in Afghanistan, together with senior UN and NGO leaders, to examine the aftermath of the Taliban’s ban on Afghan women working with local and international humanitarian organizations, announced last month.

The decision has forced the suspension of some aid operations and sparked fears that the dire humanitarian situation in the country will only worsen. This year, 28.3 million people, two-thirds of the population, will require urgent assistance.

Courage and resilience

The visit follows a UN mission last week headed by the Organization’s highest-ranking woman official, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, focused on the impact of the humanitarian ban in an effort to promote and protect women’s and girls’ rights.

Ms. Mohammed was accompanied by Sima Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women, and Khaled Khiari, Assistant Secretary-General for UN political, peacebuilding and peace operations.

“We have witnessed extraordinary resilience. Afghan women left us no doubt of their courage and refusal to be erased from public life. They will continue to advocate and fight for their rights, and we are duty bound to support them in doing so,” said Ms. Bahous.