We know education is life-changing, but it’s also life-saving. Education is thought of as a tool that empowers children to develop and to become successful and independent people. But schools can also equip children with important life skills, offer protection, and provide basic necessities. These are some of the ways in which education is saving lives around the world.
Protecting children’s rights
All children have a right to quality education and that education can be used to teach children about their rights and the channels through which they can protect those rights. Children who experience abuse may have been told the abuse is normal, but teachers can make them aware of their right to safety and security and can highlight mechanisms in the system available to protect them. In countries like Australia, Brazil, the UK, and the US, teachers take on protective roles as mandatory reporters who are required to report cases of child abuse and neglect to relevant authorities.
School can empower girls to say no to child marriage, to be advocates for their own futures and continued education. Girls who get a secondary school education are six times less likely to become child brides than those who receive little or no education. In an effort to ensure that all girls have the chance to learn, Tanzania’s new law requires teachers to report suspected instances of child marriage.
Education can also be used to dispel cultural norms that suggest girls are inferior to boys by teaching boys that all people are of equal value. By challenging social norms and harmful cultural practices like FGM, education can help end these beliefs and practices. In the UK, a teacher who is informed by a girl that FGM has been performed on her is required to alert authorities as part of their duties as a mandatory reporter.
Education in Emergencies
After a humanitarian emergency, which can include natural disasters and conflict situations, education can save lives. Schools can act as shelters and distribution points for food, water, and other essentials. Classes can be used to teach skills that help prevent the spread of diseases and promote the mitigation of conflict and violence. Furthermore, children who continue their education and are safely in school are also less vulnerable to kidnapping, violence, and exploitation.
When a child’s education is minimally interrupted by an emergency, some sense of normalcy can be established, and school can promote resilience. The routine of school and support of teachers can support the social and emotional well-being of children, while continuing to help them learn and work toward a more successful and independent future.
Health, sex, and sanitation education
"I live in the camp with my uncle. I was home in Mankien with my parents when the fighting started. The school here is better than the one back home. The teachers are good. I like science and religion, and I would like to become a teacher of science. I would like to teach back in Mankien. School teaches you good things, and will help us to do go things for the people." James Jidit Matai, age 14, class 2 in Juba, #SouthSudan. #BacktoLearning © UNICEF/UN09922/Ohanesian
Children can learn good hygiene and health practices, which may save their lives, at school. When the Ebola epidemic took hold of West Africa, schools were able to teach children hygiene practices that helped slow the virus’ spread. In South Sudan, where the state of clean water and sanitation is extremely poor, children learn practices to avoid contracting diseases from food and water. They learn to cut their nails to prevent dirt from getting trapped beneath them and to wash their hands before eating, and they spread awareness of hygiene practices by bringing these lessons home to their families. Education can serve as a platform to discuss nutrition too.
Schools can not only teach children about water and airborne preventable diseases, but STDs as well. HIV/AIDS “clubs” in Ghana and other sex education programs teach children about how these diseases are transmitted, the risks associated with sexual activity, and how to protect themselves from viruses.
The benefits of health, sex, and sanitation education in schools don’t stop with one generation, they can also benefit future generations. Women who are able to receive a primary school education (at least) are less likely to have malnourished children. And the risk of child mortality for the children whose mothers who have a secondary or higher education is half that of those whose mothers have no education.
Initiatives like the World Food Programmes’ School Meals help to protect children’s food security in places where crises and emergencies have occurred. For children who live in developing countries faced with food security or high levels of poverty, the meal they get at school can be life-saving and provide them with the nutrients they need for healthy development.
In 2011, the Wajir district of Kenya was one of the hardest hit by a long drought that affected the region. For many children, lunch at school, a bowl of porridge, was their only meal — and even that sometimes had to be shared among several siblings.
Read more: How Did Your School Lunch Compare?
The National School Lunch Program and other food assistance programs in the US provide 30.3 million public school children with free or low-cost lunches during the school year. Without these nutritious school lunch meals, children from low-income families may go hungry or fall back on cheaper options, like fast food, which lack nutritional value.
Read more: Did Your School Lunch Measure Up?
There is no doubt that an education is the key to success. Children who get an education are less likely to be incarcerated and more likely to be productive members of society. Educated girls are less likely to experience physical and sexual violence and less likely to be married off at a young age. Education empowers children to fulfill their goals — whatever those goals maybe.
Even though school can be life-changing and life-saving, there are many children now risking their lives to get an education. In Syria and Yemen, children are trying to go to school in the midst of ongoing violent conflicts.
The terrain, lack of infrastructure, and resources in some developing countries makes it difficult for some children to travel to and from school. These children in a remote part of China are forced to climb 2,625 just to get to the nearest school.
And even when there are no physical obstacles to going to school, children put their lives at risk by seeking an education. The Taliban have issued death threats against Malala Yousafzai and a gunman attempted to kill her because she violated the Taliban ban on girls attending school and is now a prominent advocate for girls education. The militant group Boko Haram, whose name translates to “Western education is a sin,” abducted hundreds of girls from their school in Nigeria because they do not believe girls should receive an education.
But every child is entitled to a quality education and should have equal access to that education, all its benefits, and the opportunities that come with it. Approximately 59 million primary school-aged children are being denied an education while nearly 65 million teenagers don’t have access to secondary schooling. But every single one of them has the right to education, an education that could both change and save their lives, and nothing should stand in the way of that.