Nairobi, Kenya. Several Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Yemen are unlikely to achieve education-for-all Millennium Development Goals by 2015 because of continuing conflict, Unesco said in a recent report.
Kevin Watkins, director of the UN agency’s 2011 Global Monitoring Report, said children and education were getting caught in the cross-fire, hindering the realization of the development goals, which were endorsed by more than 160 countries in 2000.
“The failure of governments to protect human rights is causing children deep harm and taking away their only chance of an education,” he said.
The report, titled “The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education,” which was released last week, said 35 countries were affected by armed conflict between 1999 and 2008 — several in the Middle East.
“Children and schools are on the front line of these conflicts, with classrooms, teachers and pupils seen as legitimate targets,” the report said.
Unsafe for Learning
In Egypt, antigovernment demonstrations and resulting clashes closed down many schools or disrupted regular terms.
The Interior Ministry beefed up security at schools to encourage students to return, but thousands of parents still preferred to keep their children at home.
“A deteriorating security situation hinders the opening of the schools and this affects the whole educational process,” said Fathi al-Sharqawi, a professor of educational psychology at Cairo’s Ain Shams University.
“Teachers will have to skip some parts of the curriculums after the students go back to their classrooms, which will also affect these students’ learning badly.”
Hundreds of parents have complained that their children are attacked on the way to school. The Egyptian Center for Human Rights received reports that criminals used weapons to grab money from children.
“There is total [uncertainty] about the future of this academic year,” said Manal Abdul Aziz, an Egyptian journalist.
Forced to Work
Meanwhile, decades of war, United Nations sanctions, poor security and a troubled economic situation have adversely affected education and increased illiteracy levels in Iraq, the report said.
According to data produced by the government and Unesco in September, at least five million of Iraq’s almost 30 million people are illiterate. Of this figure, 14 percent are children who have left school to feed their families, are displaced or have no access to suitable education.
Ahmed Khalid Jaafar, 14, said he left school after his father died in an explosion in Baghdad three years ago, and sought work on the streets to feed his mother and two younger sisters.
“I sell gum. My mother works as a seamstress,” he said. “We make 200,000 to 300,000 dinars [$160 to $250] a month. We spend that money on the most important things, mainly food. School is not important now.”
The adult illiteracy rate in Iraq is now one of the highest in the Arab region, according to the Unesco data. In rural areas, almost 30 percent of the population is unable to read or write.
While Bahrain is on course to halving illiteracy levels by 2015, countries like Iraq, Mauritania and Sudan are still off track, according to Unesco.
Yemen could reallocate 10 percent of its military budget to education to put an additional 840,000 children in school, the agency said in the report.
“In Yemen, many internally displaced children complement family income by begging, smuggling or collecting refuse, and there are concerns that child labor is increasing,” it said.
In troubled Syria, the report added, attendance rates in preschool programs had decreased significantly both among poor and wealthy students.
“Conflict remains a major roadblock to human development in many parts of the world, yet its impact on education is widely neglected,” said Irina Bokova, Unesco’s director general.
However, Unesco said there had been efforts in some Middle Eastern states to battle problems in the education sector.
“The recent experiences of Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait and Yemen show that literacy policy can be effective,” the report said. “All four countries have increased their adult literacy rates by at least 20 percentage points in the past 15 to 20 years.”