Monday, March 29, 2010

Dispel the Darkness

“Education for all is important for three reasons. First, education is a right. Second, education enhances individual freedom. Third, education yields important development benefits." John Daniel, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Education.

How committed are the South Asian nations to promoting education for all? How focused, indeed, are they on building their future?

At the Millennium Summit in September 2000, an important Millennium Development Goal (MDG) was drafted that focuses on increasing literacy among children around the world. It asks the member States to “ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”

Unfortunately, a look at the status of education in some Asian countries depicts a worrisome trend and it is feared that they might not be able to achieve this goal within the stipulated timeframe. The drop-out rates are on the rise among children from poor families, girls, street children and other marginalized groups.

According to UNESCO, Asia has the world's largest share of children not receiving an education. UNESCO’s Education For All Global Monitoring Report 2007 states that Pakistan ranks second in the world with the highest number of out-of-school children. Of these 6.5 million out-of-school Pakistani children, “80 per cent were never enrolled, 10 per cent dropped out, while the remaining could get to school at some later stage.” India ranks third with 4.5 million such kids. India also houses the largest number of 'working' children in the world - about ¼ of the world's total. The official Indian Government figures estimate the number of working children to be at about 59 million, though Oxfam estimates speak of 100-150 million.

Out-of-school children – whether not enrolled at all or drop-outs – often end up in the child labour markets, working in some of the worst working conditions imaginable. This includes working in brick kilns and factories in bonded-labour with no fixed hours or minimum wage-limit, as well as being forcibly recruited to fight in conflict areas and sold into commercial sex tourism.

Girls comprise about 57% of all out-of-school children and 2/3 of adults without access to literacy are women. In a majority of developing countries, girls suffer serious forms of discrimination. In Pakistan, over half of the population comprises of children, roughly a ¼ of which are girls. Sadly, only 25% of these girls manage to finish primary school. UNESCO supports girls’ education in developing countries by sponsoring their access to, and retention in, primary education and by encouraging education policies and strategies of governments and NGOs that aim to provide girls and women with equal opportunities of learning and decision-making regarding their future.

The United Nations (UN) estimates the number of street children to be around 100 million. According to Asian Development bank (ADB) reports, the world’s largest number of street children resides in South Asia. They constitute the marginalized group of many Asian societies and are often neglected by governments when implementing welfare schemes. The Human Rights Watch has found that India has 18 million street children, the world’s largest concentration (HRWA 2000). Other Asian nations offer similar trends. In Afghanistan, more than two decades of war has resulted in huge populations of orphaned street children struggling to survive - about 37,000 based on a headcount in 2002. Nepal is home to about 30,000 street children according to a 1996 estimate. These street children constitute a big part of the statistics of children who are either out-of-school or are drop-outs.

Some experts estimate that half of the 104 million out-of-school children live in countries that are in, or recovering from conflict. Education in crisis situations can provide children with a sense of normalcy, but in the first Global Survey on Education in Emergencies, research shows that “over 27 million children and youth do not have access to education in 10 countries affected by conflict.” In Sri Lanka, in the North-Eastern Province alone, it is estimated that 2,000 children have been involved in the guerilla warfare as child soldiers, and face difficulties readapting to age-appropriate living conditions. In such areas, UNESCO not only provides emergency educational assistance but also helps local aid agencies and governments to establish makeshift schools, improve learning conditions and provide other necessary materials.

One major hurdle, in the provision of basic education to children, is limitation arising from some form of disability such as physical handicaps, cognitive, motor, visual or auditory disabilities. According to UNESCO the number of children under the age of 18 with disabilities around the world has been estimated to be between 120 and 150 million, and more than 90% of such disadvantaged children in developing countries do not attend school. Although humanitarian aid agencies insist upon special initiatives for the disabled, many South Asian nations are lagging far behind in undertaking the necessary initiatives.

For the Asian nations still struggling in the education sector, the drop-out rate is a bigger problem than enrolment, though both offer serious cause for concern. According to UNESCO’s Education For All Global Monitoring Report 2007, “the net enrolment ratio (NER) in Pakistan is less than 80 per cent as compared to other developing countries where enrolment ratios jumped to over 85 per cent by 2004”, says the report, adding that “NERs increased significantly in South and West Asia from 77 per cent to 86 per cent, with the exception of Pakistan and Nepal.”

A UNESCO 2004 study reveals that Asia tops the school dropout league. An Asian Development Bank (ADB) report suggests that in South Asia, for every 100 children who start grade one, less than 60 will complete grade five within the prescribed time. The Primary school drop-out rates for some Asian countries are:
Pakistan – 55%
India – 53%
Laos – 47%
Burma – 45%
Nepal, Cambodia, Bangladesh - 35-38%

Despite efforts of the UN and Aid Agencies, as well as governments and NGOs, the drop-out rates clearly establish that much more needs to be done. Some of the steps that may be taken to improve enrollments and decrease drop-out rates are:

• It is important for enrolment and sustainability that States make primary education free and compulsory According to the new edition of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, “Primary-school fees, which are a major obstacle for universal access, are still collected in 89 countries out of 103 surveyed.” It must also be accessible to all, without any form of discrimination - as the Salamanca Statement urges: "... schools should accommodate all children regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic or other conditions."
(Article 3, The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action, Salamanca, Spain, 1994)

• It is important to fight all kinds of injustice done to the girl-child. Recently, one religious cleric in Pakistan declared girls’ education as un-Islamic. As a result, parents of more than 2,000 girls in that area stopped sending them to school. It is important not to allow anyone to manipulate religious sentiment, and impress upon parents and other community members the value of an educated female as a useful community member who would also pass on the benefits of education to the future generations.

• There is a need for a large number of qualified teachers in Asia. In 75% of Indian schools there is only one teacher for several classes. In Pakistan, officially, there is one teacher per 35 students in primary schools and one teacher per 48 students at secondary level, but a serious problem for Pakistan government is the presence of ‘Ghost’ schools in remote areas where teachers simply don’t turn up. Bangladeshi pupils are found to be in the most crowded classes, with just one teacher for every 57 pupils. Cases of physical punishment also result in increasing drop-out rates. UNESCO officials stress the need for properly trained teachers with adequate command over their respective subjects and teaching skills. Neglected groups must be targeted specifically in all social uplifting schemes with approaches having flexible non-formal teaching methodologies rather than promoting standard schooling.

• Improving the quality of curriculum would increase its value and, hence, sustained participation. The education curriculum must include teaching of technical skills and life skills to give children a chance at practical and productive livelihoods. That would also encourage parents to get their children enrolled.

• Poverty alleviation schemes involving government and NGO sector should focus on countering the effects of lack of basic necessities such as food, clothing etc. Creating awareness about the importance of support and guidance from parents and the relevance of formal education would also go a long way in solving the drop-out problem.

If the efforts of organizations committed to spreading education around the world are supplemented by a stronger political will of governments, there is no reason why the MDG on literacy cannot be achieved by 2015. It would be a very small investment in terms of the far reaching development benefits it would yield.

Published in SouthAsia Magazine
Dec, 2007

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