Quality education is not just a human right. It’s fundamental in closing the gaps created by inequality and, ultimately, in helping end extreme poverty by 2030.
As former South African President and human rights champion Nelson Mandela famously declared: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."
Yet, powerful as education is recognised to be, it remains out of reach for 258 million children globally, according to a 2018 report by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).
Children in sub-Saharan Africa are particularly vulnerable to the issues that get in the way of accessing quality education — including conflict and crisis, poverty, and gender inequality.
In sub-Saharan Africa, more than one-fifth of children between the ages of about six and 11, and one-third of children aged 12 to 14, are out of school. That rises to about 60% of children aged 15 to 17.
The reality is particularly grim for girls. Some 9 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa, aged between six and 11, will never set foot in school, compared to 6 million boys. Meanwhile, 23% of girls are out of primary school, compared to 19% of boys.
Walter Hirche, the chairman of UNESCO Germany's expert committee on education, told digital news platform DW: “In sub-Saharan Africa, girls are particularly disadvantaged.”
It means that significantly more progress is needed if we're to achieve the targets set by the UN's Global Goal 4, which works to ensure every child has access to a quality education.
But the fact that all of the 17 UN Global Goals are interconnected means that campaigning for education also helps achieve other goals, like Goal 1 for zero poverty, Goal 5 for gender equality, and Goal 8 for decent work and economic growth, among many others.
Here are some of the key things you need to know about universal quality education, and how we can go about achieving it in sub-Saharan Africa.
What is universal quality education and what does it really mean?
The world will not be able to achieve the UN Global Goals and end extreme poverty unless governments invest in their own people, including in children’s rights and in access to quality education.
This means that governments need to provide at least 12 years of free, quality, inclusive, and safe education.
What’s the current state of education in sub-Saharan Africa?
The region continues to lag behind when compared to other parts of the world, with sub-Saharan Africa having the highest number of out-of-school children of any region in the world.
Globally, there are an estimated 59 million children aged between six and 11 who aren’t enrolled in schools — and 32 million of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa.
In fact, across sub-Saharan Africa currently, it’s estimated that one in every three children will never get the opportunity to go to school.
But it's also not enough to just be in school — the quality of the education also has to be good for a child to thrive. It's estimated that 90% of children aged between six and 14 in sub-Saharan Africa wont reach the minimum reading requirements, even after they complete secondary education.
One country that’s particularly affected in terms of education access is Nigeria, where 10.5 million children aged between five and 14 are out of school, according to UNICEF. It means that, of all the children who aren't in school globally, about one in five lives in Nigeria.
Other countries that also perform poorly when it comes to access to education include Niger and Chad. In Niger, for example, education is free and compulsory yet only 23% of boys and 5% of girls are in primary or secondary school.
What are the obstacles in achieving universal quality education in sub-Saharan Africa?
Wars, natural disasters, internal displacement, economic barriers, and socio-cultural norms are some of the key factors that stand in the way of getting every child in school.
There are 15 African countries that are currently at war or experiencing some form of armed conflict, and it has led to the rapid closing of schools in West and Central Africa.
“Right now, nearly 2 million children are being robbed of an education in the region due to violence and insecurity in and around their schools,” UNICEF said in a statement in August 2019.
The financial cost of education is also a huge factor.
Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are among the poorest in the world, and account for 27 out of 28 poorest nations globally.
Even in countries where education is free, there are other costs that need to be factored in, like uniforms, transportation, and books.
“The expenses may be too much for a family to pay, on top of the money the family loses by not sending a child to work or even marrying off a daughter,” explains Child Fund International.
In Somalia, for example, only 30% of children are in school as a result of conflict and what UNICEF calls “extremely high rates of poverty in communities.”
What is Global Citizen campaigning on, to help improve education access?
Global Citizen advocates for at least 12 years of free, quality, inclusive, and safe education.
“We're working with partners to call on developing countries like Nigeria, Niger, and Rwanda to deliver on the promises they made by signing the Incheon Declaration in 2015,” explains Talia Fried, senior manager for global policy and government affairs at Global Citizen.
The Incheon Declaration works towards achieving an inclusive and equitable quality education, and lifelong learning for everyone.
Some important pieces of the declaration, that countries have agreed to, ensure the provision of 12 years of free, publicly funded, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, of which at least nine years are compulsory.
It further encourages the provision of at least one year of free and compulsory quality pre-primary education, and calls for all children to have access to quality early childhood development, care, and education.
The Declaration also commits to providing meaningful education and training opportunities for out-of-school children and adolescents. It further calls for immediate, targeted, and sustained action to ensure that all children are in school and are learning.
Why is education really key for ending the cycle of poverty?
Education has a huge role to play reducing inequalities and poverty, says the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).
If access to universal quality education is fast-tracked and achieved, there are numerous gains and benefits to be made.
Some 420 million people would be lifted out of poverty globally if they had secondary education, for example; meanwhile women’s lifetime earnings could increase by up to $30 trillion, if every girl received 12 years of quality education. The GPE has also found that every year that a mother stays in school helps to reduce infant mortality by 5% to 10%.
“Education is also essential to the success of every one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” adds GPE.