Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Hungering for an education

By Faiza Rady

In his introduction to the 1999 UNICEF report on "The State of the World's Children", UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan deplores that a majority of people in the South -- women in particular -- have no access to education. According to the document, "130 million children in the developing world are denied the right to education -- almost two thirds of them girls. And 855,000,000 people, a sixth of the world's population, are illiterate -- the majority of them women."

To remedy the situation, the report strongly urges industrial nations to invest in education programmes in the South so as to provide global access to primary education by the next decade because "just $7 billion more each year for the next decade -- less than the amount Europeans spend on ice cream -- is needed to achieve universal primary enrolment by the year 2010."

On the eve of the third millennium, the chance that poor children might acquire an education, however, is severely compromised worldwide, even though access to primary education was enshrined more than fifty years ago as a fundamental human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

More recently, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child spelled out an international commitment to guarantee every child's right to education. To date, the Convention remains the world's most widely ratified human rights document, signed by every nation with the noted exception of the United States and Somalia.

The Convention became binding on all signatories on 2 September 1990, nine months after it was adopted by the General Assembly. As a result, 96 per cent of the world's children live in countries obliged by international law to provide -- among other fundamental rights -- the right to education.

Among those most gravely affected by the absence of education are juvenile domestic workers. Only limited information is available about this "invisible work force", which often operates underground to bypass child labour legislation. However, available research suggests that 90 per cent are girls, most are 12 to 17 years old, and some work 15 hours per day.

The report also denounces child domestic labour as one of the worst forms of labour exploitation. Defenceless and lacking in recourse, children are sold into domestic service, work excessive hours with inadequate or no pay; are exposed to grave safety or health hazards; and are abused in households where they often face the risk of physical violence and sexual harassment.

Not surprisingly, poor children in the South are most vulnerable to this modern form of enslavement.

On top of producing exploitative domestic child labour, dire poverty resulting from the South's heavy debt burden to the North has also required states to slash budgets for public school funding and deny education to millions of children.

In the South, each infant is born with a $417 debt, reports UNICEF's executive director, Carol Bellamy. "Sub-Saharan Africa spends more on servicing its debt in excess of $200 billion than on the health and education of its 306 million children," says Bellamy.

The UNICEF report strongly urges debt cancellation for the world's poorest countries in order to grant hundreds of millions of children their right to health, education and a more humane livelihood. While the amount of money exchanged in the global economy has grown to unprecedented levels worth a staggering $30 trillion, 650 million children worldwide live in conditions of absolute poverty. In addition to being denied access to education, these children are plagued with malnutrition, poor sanitation, polluted drinking water and a life span shortened by the cumulative effects of severe deprivation and oftentimes chronic and debilitating disease, says the report.

"The consequences of illiteracy are profound, even potentially life-threatening," concludes the document.

In this context, the findings highlight the correlation between the level of female education and mortality rates, with a special emphasis on child mortality. "A 10 per cent increase in girls' primary enrolment can be expected to decrease infant mortality by 4.1 deaths per 1,000, and a similar rise in girls' secondary enrolment by another 5.6 deaths per 1000," says the report.

Education gives women sufficient knowledge of health, sanitation and nutrition to provide their families with more hygienic conditions and their children with an increased chance of survival. A case in point is the southern Indian state of Kerala, where literacy is close to 100 per cent and the rate of infant mortality is the lowest in the South.

While there is some indication of increased literacy levels and regionally limited pockets of improved education, the overall picture remains grim. Following world-wide fiscal austerity measures imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as loan conditionality, education expenditure has -- along with health and welfare budgets -- taken a free fall.

This is especially true in the former Soviet Union and the former Socialist East European countries, which had attained remarkable levels of education.

However, with the transition of these states to the neo-liberal market economy emerged a picture of economic degradation and a decline in education. Real spending on education has fallen in many countries -- by one third in the Russian Federation and by three quarters or more in Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia and Kyrgystan. Teachers' salaries have also dropped in real terms, and morale has sunken as low as the pay. In Russia, public school teachers have gone for months without wages and joined other government employees in staging militant strikes.

In almost every country of the region, gross domestic product (GDP) is often well below the levels of 1989. While the cost of education has spiralled, family incomes have dropped dramatically -- making education inaccessible to millions of children. Following huge declines in enrolment, 32,000 schools closed their doors between 1991 and 1995 in 12 countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

"The portrait is not just one of general decay but of re-emerging inequality, with poor families less and less able to pay for their children's education, and with children in rural areas and from ethnic minorities disproportionally affected," reads the report.

Following its evaluation of the status of education worldwide -- with a special focus on deteriorating conditions in Eastern Europe and the South -- the survey strongly condemns the debt burden and the consequent slashes in education budgets world-wide. Defining education as an indivisible human right and the foundation of a free and fulfilled life, the report asserts that education is the right of all children and the obligation of all governments. And "to advance into the 21st century with a quarter of the world's children denied this right is shameful".

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