When Boko Haram attacked the Success International Private School in northern Nigeria in 2009, they set six classrooms on fire. Children cowered as gunmen from the militant group ranged around the playground, shooting teachers.
One girl, who was 12 at the time, described the scene to reporters from Human Rights Watch. “A gunman asked one of our teachers to lie down and then brought out his gun and shot him,” she said.
Her classmate described trembling on the floor with three other girls: “We were sure the gunmen would kill us, too, or take us away. We were crying even after they left.”
Many of the children who survived the attack never went back to school. Since then more than 1 million children in Nigeria have been prevented by Boko Haram from getting an education.
Conflict and crisis are two of the biggest barriers to education; refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than their peers, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
Last month, a global fund for education in crisis was launched with great fanfare at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. The U.N. special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, announced that $4 billion had been pledged to help 75 million children living in conflict and crisis around the world return to school.
The Education Cannot Wait fund was welcomed as one of the more concrete results of the summit. “The fund represents a tremendous shift in thinking about how to protect and respond in crisis, how to take the long view and how to understand the impact of lost opportunities on children and youth,” says Kolleen Bouchane, director of policy and advocacy at the charity Theirworld.
Less than 2 percent of humanitarian aid for emergencies is currently spent on education. Girls are worse affected when it comes to getting an education in emergencies. Dropout rates for refugee girls are as high as 90 percent globally, according to UNHCR. Out-of-school girls are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including gender-based violence, forced labor and early marriage. They are also less likely than boys to go back to school once a crisis has ended.
A briefing paper published in May by Theirworld says gender inequality in funding and implementation is part of the problem. “A humanitarian response that ignores girls’ education leaves generations of girls less equipped to recover from crises,” says Sarah Brown, founder and president of Theirworld and wife of the U.N. special envoy.
The paper recommends the creation of safe spaces for girls to learn and interact with each other. It also calls for better protection for girls traveling to and from classrooms.
In Sierra Leone, schools were closed for 17 months because of the Ebola crisis, leaving many children unable to take their exams. A project funded by the U.K. department for international development (DFID) as part of the global girls education challenge fund (GEC) identified the barriers to their education, which were heightened during the outbreak.
While schools were closed, girls were sent out to work or made to stay at home and help with chores. Rates of sexual violence and teenage pregnancy also increased.
In response to the Ebola outbreak the GEC supported the Sierra Leone ministry of education by distributing radios to help girls keep up with lessons at home or in study groups.
Emma Cowan, GEC program manager, says providing girls with money for school fees and bursaries to buy books and uniforms also made a big difference.
“It’s clear from our research that finances are still the biggest factor in girls getting an education,” she says. “Their parents can’t afford it and if they can send one child, they usually send the boy.”
The GEC also trained local women and girls to work as teaching assistants and mentors in schools.
These examples and many others from around the world will help those managing Education Cannot Wait decide how to spend the money. However, exactly how the fund will function, who will manage it, where the money will be spent and how it will be monitored is still unclear.
“We’ve been advocating for this for years, but we can’t say yet how effective it will be. It’s unclear to us who will design the mechanisms and which organization will take control,” says Nihan Koseleci Blanchy, from the Global Education Monitoring Report, published annually by Unesco.
She says one of the biggest questions is where the money will be spent. While funding traditionally goes to places where media attention is high, the need could be greatest in countries that have been trapped in conflict for years. “Now all the attention is around the Middle East but there are several countries in Africa, for example, that have been in this situation for years.”
So far it has been announced that the fund will have five key functions focused on inspiring political commitment, planning joint responses, building funds, strengthening capacity and improving accountability.
It has not yet been made clear how these functions will be carried out.
“The important work to make it work is just getting started,” says Bouchane. “Determining the first place for investments and proof of concept is the next important step. Unfortunately, the need is great so there are many options – from Lake Chad Basin to Syria.”