Rayhan Ahmed Topader:
South Asia is home to the world’s largest youth population: at once a challenge and an opportunity. Together with our partners, we’re leveraging the power of young people to change the world. Children and youth who have multiple risk factors belonging to an ethnic minority, living in a slum, on the streets, or in a rural area are the least likely to have access to basic services like education and healthcare. Girls are especially at risk: nearly half of all girls in the region marry before age 18, and gender-based violence is deeply entrenched in tradition and culture. These challenges are exacerbated by the growing population of underserved and disengaged youth. Our local partners are working across sectors and developing new alliances to deliver powerful results and achieve important milestones in their fields. Rather than seeing children as passive recipients of their services, our partners engage them as leaders and active citizens who can take charge of their own futures. A recent global unicef study into remote learning found that at least two in five children in South Asia did not have the tools to access remote learning at home. So when schools closed seven months ago, at least 147 million children stopped learning.
However, in Nepal, a recent study found that just 25 percent of children had used distance learning platforms to continue learning during school closures. Decades of progress in access to quality education, especially for girls and the most marginalised, now hangs in the balance. The most disadvantaged children have fallen the furthest behind. This includes hundreds of millions of the poorest, the displaced, girls without access to internet and phones, and those from remote localities and linguistic minorities. Children with disabilities have been particularly affected. The impact on their long-term futures could be drastic, if such children are not prioritised in efforts to re-open schools. Many may drop out of education entirelybOnly 69% of children have access to early childhood education in our region.And significantly, more girls than boys will never go to school in South Asia. This is leading to the highest incidents of child marriage and child labour in the world. Only about half of primary-aged children receive an education with minimum learning standards. Clearly, we also have a learning crisis in South Asia. Many classrooms are still characterized by teacher-centred rote learning. Many pupils are also victims of corporal punishment and discrimination And when we look at young people, only a quarter of them leave school with the secondary skills they need.
This growing gap in skills will stunt economic growth, with far-reaching social and political repercussions.The current evidence shows that children are not the main drivers of the pandemic and have an extremely low risk of becoming severely unwell from the infection, although they can pass the virus on to each other and adults. Schools can substantially reduce infection risks by providing frequent opportunities for children to wash their hands with soap and water and ensuring physical distancing through shift systems or use of open spaces. All children do not need to suffer from school closure because Covid-19 is a high risk in some areas. Containment measures need to be applied locally when outbreaks occur, rather than through national shutdowns. To ensure this, community support and flexible decision-making at local levels is key. We commend those governments that have prioritised reopening schools. In July, some schools in Bhutan and Sri Lanka were among the first to reopen, and then close, in response to localised Covid-19 transmission. But in recent weeks, older children in Bhutan returned to their desks once more. Children in Sri Lanka returned too, but then schools closed once more. Hopefully they will re-open again soon. School closures in South Asia are threatening the futures of millions of children.
When classrooms closed in South Asia, 434 million children’s lives changed. School is more than just a building. It’s a crucial part of a child’s life. For many, school provides access to food, health services and support networks not available at home. For vulnerable children, it’s also a refuge from abuse, neglect or dysfunctional parenting. When schools closed, many children were torn from the warmth of their friends and teachers and left to battle trauma and anxiety without support. During lockdowns, calls to child helplines rocketed. For children without access to internet or phones, isolation was compounded. As the pandemic pushes more people into poverty, closed classrooms leave children exposed to forced marriage and child labour. Girls are disproportionately affected. South Asia already has the highest rates of child marriage in the world. The rate had been in decline, but emerging anecdotal evidence indicates child marriage is now becoming more frequent.This is an education emergency. The longer children are out of school the less likely they are to ever return. Yet, trends in the region suggest that the pandemic could become a protracted crisis. Children’s education could be disrupted for many more months and the impact felt for years.
This is why reopening schools must be considered an utmost priority, as soon as adequate safety can be assured.Between July and October, all children returned to school in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while phased re-openings also began in the Maldives. Governments in India and Nepal have recently empowered states and local authorities to decide when to reopen schools. This is all significant progress.Where schools cannot re-open safely, remote learning must be improved and expanded to reach all children especially the most marginalised and those with disabilities.We must also be mindful that remote learning is less appropriate for the youngest children.The opportunities are as great as the challenges.Since this crisis started, parents, caregivers and educators have found innovative and admirable ways to keep children learning. In just a few months, significant changes to teaching have been witnessed in pockets throughout the region. This creativity is testament to how much learning can be enhanced in future if we re-imagine how education is delivered. To prioritise learning, we must make schools safe to reopen. Currently, 50 percent of schools in the region do not have access to soap and water. We must increase investment in the services that keep children safe and healthy hand-washing, hygiene, school meals, health and immunisation. A healthy child is likely to learn more and an educated child is likely to lead a healthier life.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen the flexibility and quality of our education systems. South Asia worked with countries through equity profiling, and strengthening monitoring systems linked to high impact, cost effective quality education interventions across the region. The actual result will be known in 2019 due to the two-year lag in data.South Asia with Country Offices have stepped up efforts to improve learning outcomes in the next Regional Office Management Plan from 2018-2021, setting the ambitious target of ensuring 10 million previously out-of-school are in school and learning. This builds on the recently completed ‘Improving Education Quality in South Asia. I have seen this crisis first-hand in my home country Bangladesh. When I was in primary school, high school and college teacher sparked my passion for learning and set the stage for the work I am pursuing as an innovator and entrepreneur. I realised later that many youth in Bangladesh are not fortunate enough to have a teacher who challenges them. If we continue down the current path, the education crisis in Bangladesh and throughout South Asia will deepen. We will fall short of education goals set forth in the Sustainable Development Goals that we hope to achieve by 2030. What we do next could transform the future for millions of children.
Writer and Columnist