Published Online: March 3, 2004
Published in Print: March 3, 2004, as Education Elusive for Children From War-Ravaged Nations

Education Elusive for Children From War-Ravaged Nations

More than 27 million school-age children living in war-torn nations don't receive educational opportunities, and those that do attend school often contend with overcrowded classrooms that are targets of violence, concludes a report released last week.

A global survey of education initiatives in 113 countries, conducted by the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, found the money to provide such options for the world's youngest, most vulnerable citizens is insufficient.

And because more than 90 percent of displaced students live in temporary shelter in their native lands, the international community will not or cannot help them. The internal conflict is so complex and dangerous, many do not try. Those that do try often find it nearly impossible to reach the people who need help.

When such efforts do succeed, primary schooling is often all that is offered, the report notes, and it is often taught by underqualified, underpaid, and overstressed teachers. The reality is even bleaker for older youths: Only 6 percent of all child refugees are enrolled in secondary school.

The situation is not always as simple as providing remedial classes for a year or two of missed school, said Lynne Bethke, a consultant to the New York City-based commission and the author of the report, "Global Survey on Education in Emergencies."

In countries such as Angola, where civil war raged for 30 years, many children were offered no formal education during the entire time of the conflict, she said.

"We're talking about generations of children that have no access to education and grow up to be illiterate adults," Ms. Bethke said. "If we ever expect to see this cycle of poverty and war and conflict change, there has got to be some investment in human capital in these countries."

'Tear Your Heart Out'

Experts believe the study is one of the first to catalog the problem of educating refugee children during times of conflict.

"Most impressive about the study is how comprehensive it is," said James H. Williams, an assistant professor of international education and affairs at George Washington University in Washington. The issue, he said, "is not on the world agenda."

The report looked at more than 500 education initiatives between 1993 and 2002 that provided formal schooling in such nations as Pakistan and Somalia, Ms. Bethke said.

"The mission was to try to find out what's happening ... and to get donors and organizations to increase their commitment" to financing education for refugees, she said.

The lack of access to schooling for children living in conflict zones is dire, the report says, pointing out how little money is dedicated to changing the situation. The United Nations—a main provider of international aid—requested $46 million for such endeavors in 2002, yet countries pledged only $17 million.

Without aid from that organization and wealthy nations such as the United States, communities find it hard to pay for schools, Ms. Bethke said.

"It is definitely true that families ... want their children [to attend school], and they go to great lengths to get something to happen, but they need some extra help to do it," she said. "They see it as hope for their children, so they'll have better lives."

Of those schools that are operating, most are geared to the primary grades and enroll mostly boys, according to the study. Families worry that school is too dangerous for girls: Not only are teachers and schools in general frequent victims of crime, but a majority of teachers are male, and parents worry about sexual exploitation of their daughters.

Even for those children who do attend, the education offered is weak, the report says.

Many teachers are not considered qualified to teach by their governments and have no more than an 8th grade education.

Either way, most teachers face difficult work environments: Classes are sometimes packed with 100 or more students ages 6 to 20, Ms. Bethke said, and teachers are paid little for their efforts.

"This [report] confirms everything we've heard," said Helen K. Toth, the associate director of the international-affairs department for the American Federation of Teachers, which supports several overseas education programs. The stories of both children and teachers, she said, "just tear your heart out."

Vol. 23, Issue 25, Page 11

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