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Geneva becomes a global hub for education in emergencies

Credit: Mauricio Bisol/UNICEF

A new hub will bring together actors from across the International Geneva community to improve education for children living in crisis.

The coronavirus crisis has disrupted the education of 90 per cent of children worldwide, with schools in more than 190 countries forced to close their doors to stop the spread of the virus. But even before the crisis, millions of children were already missing out on their education.

With Covid-19 barring millions more children from the classroom, a new global education hub launched this week in Geneva wants to put educating children in emergencies at the top of the international agenda.

A growing problem. Some 257 million school-aged children were out of school before the pandemic, with over half of these children - around 127 million - living in countries affected by humanitarian crises.

With little or no access to education, these children face increased risk of being forced into child labour, armed violence, or child marriage. UN experts have warned that the pandemic could lead to an extra 13 million child marriages over the next decade and, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Covid-19 fallout has pushed millions more towards underage labour to help support struggling families, undoing decades of work to end the practice.

Why is the hub important? Pledged by the Swiss government at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum, the hub aims to bring together government, humanitarian, development and academic actors to address the challenges that prevent children from accessing education during emergencies.

“Even prior to the pandemic, children’s learning was in crisis,” explained Petra Heusser, coordinator of the hub, speaking to Geneva Solutions following the launch on Monday. “There are so many children who do not go to school in crisis-affected countries and for them, the pandemic has only increased inequities and risks.”

Nearly 250 million children live in countries affected by conflict, where schools are often forced to close due to violence or even become targets for attacks. With most conflicts typically protracted, often lasting over a decade, generations of children are falling behind, with many never returning to school.

“If a child is not going to school it lacks an important safety net and then it's more likely to go to work, and often this can be hazardous work that is not appropriate for a child and endangers its wellbeing and health,” explained Heusser.

Bringing children back into the classroom. The hub, which will have a physical base in Geneva when Covid-19 restrictions allow, was co-founded by key actors already working in the field including Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the Global Education Cluster (GEC), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), along with UN agencies including UNICEF and UNESCO. The aim is to bring together a range of experience and identify the barriers that keep children out of the classroom.

“Education can be life saving in emergencies,” said Heusser. “When we think 'life saving', we first think about water, we think about houses, but education can teach children how they can avoid mines or unexploded ordnance. It can educate children about trafficking, about mental health, or how they can protect themselves. ”

The initiative will also look to build new ties between development and humanitarian actors and generate new financial and political commitments. Countries around the world may only just be coming to terms with the damage that can be done when children cannot go to school, but urgent action is long overdue, said Heusser.

“Every country has now seen what happens to children and their families when the children can't go to school,” she explained. “Particularly in crisis contexts, children’s health, development, safety and well-being is at risk with the most vulnerable bearing the heaviest brunt.”