Middle East

The Middle East and North Africa’s Lost Generation: Can It Be Saved?

Sheema Ahanin

The Middle East and North Africa’s Lost Generation: Can It Be Saved?

A Syrian refugee girl makes her way to the school at a refugee camp in Nizip in Gaziantep province, near the Turkish-Syrian border

On Wednesday, April 15, a UN report came out with some devastating news and statistics: one in four in the Middle East and North Africa are either out of school or at risk of dropping out, putting the total number at 21 million children and youth.

Of those, 15 million children are not attending school – 3 million are from Syria and Iraq alone. The major factors for the decline in education in the regions are due to political turmoil and heavy armed conflict. Schools have become unsafe to attend; some have or are being used as military facilities, some have even been bombed. Many of those who have survived the conflicts in the region have been displaced.

There is a lack of teachers – many have been killed, many have fled for their safety. In Syria alone, at least 160 children have been killed in schools in 2014. In some areas, such as Aleppo, Syria, the enrollment rate is as low as 6%. Of concern, is the great decline of girls and young women attending school. Girls and young women in the regions are 25% more likely to be deprived of education due to the rising ultra-conservative attitudes. Despite the scarce and rare accessibility to education in the regions, many girls and young women are now forced to stay at home.

There were better times.

The Middle East, with the help of governments and international organizations, was doing well for the last decade. The dropout rate was decreasing, and in countries such as Syria, the enrollment rate was high relative to other regions of the world.

This has all changed, and for the worst.

The conflicts that have emerged in the Middle East and North Africa, leading to a great decline in access to education, is one of history’s greatest tragedies. Many of the displaced children and youth now live in refugee camps. The international community’s goal was to create, facilitate and make education available to refugees in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey at no cost. However, a great number of refugees live outside of UN camps. Consequently, for these refugees, education is ultimately inaccessible. Families encourage, and some force, their children to do labour work instead. Some children and youth go to the extent of begging on the streets to make ends meet in their makeshift camps, because they cannot attend school or find regular jobs.

There is also a presence of discrimination in countries hosting the refugees – certain schools are closed to refugees, making education inaccessible to those who have been displaced due to conflict in their homeland.  In Lebanon, four out of five refugees do not have access to education. Tuition costs in these host countries are too expensive for those wanting to pursue post-secondary studies. Young adults are forced to work – and usually not paid fairly as it is nearly impossible to be granted a job officially as a refugee.

What is being done to help the children and youth have accessibility to education in the Middle East and North Africa?

Save the Children is currently providing support to nearly 60 schools in northern Syria, which means it is possible to deliver education to conflict zones. No Lost Generation, an initiative involving the UN as well as NGOs, fosters comprehensive education and protection plans for those affected by the political turmoil and violence in the regions. MENA and OOSCI, initiatives launched by UNICEF and UNESCO Institute for Statistics, identifies barriers that contribute to inaccessibility to education and analyze strategies to improve school enrollment and participation. Australia has donated $20 million for the Syrian cause alone.

Despite efforts from the international community, organizations and bodies, it is not enough. More help is needed.

This year, the UN asked the international community for $2.9 billion for Syria – 9% has been provided so far. In other countries, the numbers are lower. Donor countries should help the countries hosting the refugees – one way would be to further invest in education programs to ultimately reverse the increasing dropout rate of children and youth attending school. Worth mentioning is having governments and international bodies holding parties accountable for breach of international law where education is concerned.

What are the consequences of the downward spiral of inaccessibility of education to children and the youth in the Middle East and North Africa?

The long-term effects of a generation of children and youth not completing school will lead to an entire generation of young adults being deprived of the knowledge and skills necessary to enter the workforce. This generation would be earning far less-to nothing compared to those who have received education. In return, the governments would have to compensate through government assistance, which will be a great financial burden to the regions’ economies.

Education is a universal right – no one has the prerogative to remove this right.

In 2008, there was a growing Taliban influence in Swat Valley, Pakistan, and nearby areas. Women were banned from school and the Taliban enforced fear and terror in the region by destroying many schools. One young girl, Malala Yousafzai, spoke out against the atrocities committed by the Taliban across several platforms, including local newspapers, blogs and radio. She was also featured in a documentary speaking on the issue of inaccessibility of education for children and youth, namely girls and young women. With the help of the international community and Pakistan’s military, the Taliban were driven out of the region and order was reinstated, as was education for all. Unfortunately, Malala’s activism and belief that education is a universal right came at a cost. She was nearly killed by a Taliban member. What followed the assassination attempt was an influx of protests and petitions around the world. With great success, a bill was created in Pakistan called the Right to Education Bill. Despite the assassination attempt, Malala has remained strong. The young and bright woman founded a fund for girls’ education, continues her activism and promotes universal education.

What can we learn from the past?

There has been a rise in insurgencies and acts of terror and violence in the Middle East and North Africa in the last few years. Despite these great challenges, there is hope for this generation. The international community and local governments need to increase and continue to promote and support education both in the conflict-risen areas as well as in the countries hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. Education has proven to decrease early marriages, child labour and recruitment by armed groups. Education contributes to mental resilience. Children and youth do not feel isolated, powerless and lose confidence. Rather, education leads to individuals recognizing their potential.

It is important to acknowledge that the children and youth are the future. It is their right to fulfill their dreams tomorrow – not to solely meet their needs today.