In November of 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Typhoon Yolanda) tore through the central Philippines devastating millions and rendering thousands homeless. Those who survived had to pick through the debris of their former lives for scraps they could sell to feed themselves.
It’s hard to imagine why getting children back in school quickly would be a top priority after something like Haiyan or any other emergency. Natural disasters and armed-conflict situations may damage school buildings, deplete resources, and create unsafe environments. Teachers may not be willing to work for less money or in dangerous, undesirable conditions. Families whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed may not want to spend money on tuition fees or books when they could spend it on food instead. And shouldn’t education be a concern after shelter, food, and safe water have been secured?
This line of thinking is exactly why only 2 percent of humanitarian aid funding was spent on education last year, despite the 75 million children whose educations have been interrupted by humanitarian disasters and complex emergencies.
But education arguably matters more in emergency contexts. On any given day, education can help reduce poverty, improve health, and empower children to become successful, independent people. But education in emergencies can truly change and save lives.
A safe place
For children affected by crisis, school isn’t just a place to learn - it’s a place to be safe. Pictured, Amos Asaai, a volunteer teacher, stands with his students at the entrance to a UNICEF-provided tent classroom in A camp internally displaced people in north-east #Nigeria. #EducationCannotWait © UNICEF/UNI181988/Rich
Children — along with girls, pregnant women, the elderly, and the disabled — are a group that requires specific provisions and laws to protect them because they are inherently vulnerable. Humanitarian emergencies tend to exacerbate the challenges of poverty and disproportionately impact children, ultimately making them one of the most vulnerable populations in a crisis.
For example, prolonged conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has made children defenseless against rampant sexual violence. The number of child laborers in the Philippines rose after Typhoon Haiyan orphaned many children. Syria’s crisis has led to an increase in child marriages.
Read more: Child Marriage: Everything You Need to Know
In these situations schools can act as safe havens.
In the short-term, they can shelter students from falling mortar rounds and extreme weather. Children who are in school are at lower risk of being exploited or physically abused and less likely to be recruited into militias.
Schools can also act as distribution points for clean water, food, and clothing. Through continued education, children can learn how to protect themselves — they can learn how to avoid landmines and physical violence and prevent the contraction of harmful diseases.
After natural disasters and health emergencies, education can be used as a means of halting the spread of disease. When the Ebola epidemic hit West Africa, many schools had to suspend classes to prevent further spread of the disease. Upon re-opening, schools incorporated hygiene lessons into the curriculum to stop Ebola from continuing to be transmitted.
A better tomorrow
In the long-run, schools may not only act as a literal safe haven, but a psychosocial haven as well. Schools can improve social, emotional, and psychological well-being. Teachers can equip children with coping skills, help them process their experiences and mitigate the psychosocial impact of the emergency. Schools also provide a safe space for children to gather and socialize with one another, which can bolster mental health. The structured routine of education also helps restore a sense of normalcy and stability to the lives of affected children.
The purpose of getting an education is to build a better future. Insisting on continued education during emergencies reassures children that there is a future and there is hope for that future, which can foster resilience.
Schools and teachers can also help shape that future, not just for individuals, but for communities and society as a whole.
Education, especially in conflict situations, can be used to promote peace, stability and social cohesion, in preparation for life post-crisis. Children may learn conflict resolution skills and tolerance. Through education they can learn to respect people of other ethnicities and cultures.
Close the school, but don’t shut the door on education
Fajer, 5, sits in a classroom at a School in the Zumar sub-district of #Iraq’s Ninewa Governorate. Her sisters are studying at home because they are still afraid to go to school. "They are always scolding me because I won't stop coming to school," she says. Ongoing conflict has left 3.5 million school-aged children #outofschool, and has left nearly 1 in 5 schools out of use. © UNICEF/UNI199908/Anmar
In order for education to work toward building a more peaceful future, schools themselves need to offer a safe and secure environment. Sadly, that can't always be the case. The nature of some emergencies, particularly armed conflict, may force schools to close — but that doesn’t mean education needs to stop. When there is ongoing conflict schools are often collateral damage. They may be bombed, raided, and commandeered for military purposes. In Kenya and Yemen, schools themselves have been targeted. Even if the school remains intact, the conflict might make the journey to and from school too perilous for teachers and children.
But education can’t wait
While schools are being rebuilt and ceasefires negotiated, children should still have access to education. Even without a formal learning environment, there are other ways that children can and should continue to learn.
Disrupting a child’s education can set them back. The longer they spend out of school, the harder it is to re-enter and to catch up to their peers. In complex emergencies and prolonged crises where children may be out of school for years, an entire generation may lose out on education. Millions of children in Syria have been forced to leave school, while the thousands of children who reached school-going age during these years of conflict have never been enrolled in school.
Children take classes on the first level of Curriculum B in Hasan Zaiat school, Ashrafieh neighbourhood, Aleppo, #Syria. UNICEF’s “Curriculum B” helps children catch up with missed years of education as they get back to school. UNICEF helped set up the primary school, to provide #education to thousands of displaced children whose education has been disrupted by the war. #EducationCannotWait © UNICEF/UN018888/Al-Issa
“Education is the first block in building a strong society, and without it there will be no doctors, teachers or engineers to help rebuild Syria,” said one Syrian refugee.
Even under the “best” emergency circumstances, a child’s life will be massively disrupted. But there are different ways that education and learning programs can be adapted to suit the needs of children in emergencies.
A teacher in Syria is still holding class, but in the absence of a proper classroom he has opened his home — a cave — to around 100 children, whose families have also been displaced. Of course this is not ideal: 100 students to one teacher and a classroom that floods when it rains, but most schools in Syria have been damaged, if not destroyed.
Humanitarian aid organizations like UNICEF and Plan International aim to get children back in schools as soon as it is safe to do so, but recognize that rebuilding safe schools can take time. Following emergencies, UNICEF launches back-to-school campaigns that aim to get children learning again by providing school supplies, teacher training, food, and other essentials. Both Plan and UNICEF establish safe, child-friendly spaces where children can socialize and learn. UNICEF also distributes School-In-A-Box kits containing materials for teachers to teach up to 40 students and aim to resume education within the first 72 hours of an emergency.
Education in emergencies can save lives, so why is it underfunded?
Part of ensuring education continues in an emergency comes down to preparedness. Having measures and systems in place “just in case” disaster strikes means a smoother transition in the event that a crisis does erupt. However, funding emergency preparedness measures can seem like spending money on a day everyone hopes will never actually come.
Then, when disaster does strike, education is not seen as a priority. However, 99 percent of children living in crisis situations see education as a priority. In fact, 38 percent ranked education as their top priority.
The benefits of education for children are limitless and life-long. Receiving an education is a every person’s fundamental right — regardless of the situation.
Especially in emergencies, education cannot wait.