Children in poor and conflict-ridden countries are at a greater risk of being forced out of education completely because of coronavirus, a Senegalese politician and education expert said.
Serigne Mbaye Thiam said girls were more vulnerable to abuse than boys as a result of the closure of classrooms.
Mr Thiam, Senegal's Water and Sanitation Minister and its former national education minister, said rising poverty meant more children would be sent to work rather than to school.
At one time last year, as many as 1.6 billion children were not in school because of closures and at least 24 million were unlikely to return. Before the pandemic, about a quarter of a billion young people were not in schools.
Now, as parts of the world show signs of re-opening, Mr Thiam said half of the world's children still faced major disruptions to their learning.
Mr Thiam is also vice chairman of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).
The UN-backed fund is seeking at least $5 billion for its Raise Your Hand campaign for 2021-2025 to support 90 lower-income countries and territories.
He said it was an ambitious target but the money was the best way to help transform education standards in poorer nations and invest in a sustainable future.
Reflecting on the devastating effect of the coronavirus, Mr Thiam said the fallout "is especially acute in lower-income and conflict-affected countries, where children have been hit hard by the pandemic and faced the highest risk of dropping out permanently".
“To this day, over half of the world’s children are still facing major disruptions to their learning, ranging from full school closures to reduced or part-time schools.
"Girls are particularly at risk when schools are closed in developing countries," he told The National.
"Girls are more vulnerable to gender-based violence, to early marriage in some developing countries, and other forms of abuse and exploitation, which can lead them to dropping out of school forever. It’s a huge risk with the pandemic.”
Mr Thiam spoke during a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia and after GPE's Middle East launch event, at which it was announced the Islamic Development Bank and Dubai Cares would together donate $202.5m to the Raise Your Hand campaign.
“I think that it’s a very promising beginning,” he said.
“I think that for a beginning, it’s very good news for GPE, for all the children out of school in the world and for education.”
Most of the funding will come through concessional loans, and Mr Thiam said creative financing solutions were important to maximise investment.
Speaking about his meeting with Saudi officials and development funds, he said much progress was made compared with recent years and he noted their enthusiasm and commitment to financing education.
The culmination of the Raise Your Hand campaign will be a summit held in London in July, co-hosted by the British and Kenyan governments.
If fully funded, GPE said it can help 88 million more children – including 46 million girls – into school, among other targets.
Mr Thiam said the message to donors was that the investment can help enable education reform and address bottlenecks, support teacher training, find new ways to develop curriculums and ultimately protect the most vulnerable.
“The question of education is very important,” he said.
“Education is the way to be sure that we are going to live in a secure world, in a prosperous world and in a world also of security and solidarity.”