Qatar's first lady tell UN 'not enough children in schools'

Sheikha Mozah says children in conflict-hit regions, including Gaza, Afghanistan and Iraq, are more likely to be deprived of education.

NEW YORK // The effort to create primary school places for all the world's children within five years is failing, and youngsters in conflict-ridden regions as the Gaza Strip, Afghanistan and Iraq are among the most likely to miss out, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned warned yesterday.

Qatar's first lady brought the issue to UN headquarters yesterday as part of a panel designed to salvage the world body's poverty-reduction targets, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At yesterday's panel meeting, Sheikha Mozah said the second goal, of universal primary education for boys and girls everywhere, would not be reached until 2040 at current rates of progress. "This assessment concerns me greatly," said Sheikha Mozah, the chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. "My passion is education for all, regardless of gender, location or circumstance."

Launched at the Millennium Summit of 2000, the MDGs comprise eight targets designed to empower women, halve extreme poverty, overcome hunger, halt the spread of Aids and provide primary-school places to all children. Two-thirds of the way through their 15-year lifespan and the MDGs are in danger. The UN warns that a funding shortfall of US$20 billion (Dh73.4bn) this year will hamper global efforts to reduce poverty, disease and inequality by the 2015 target.

For this reason, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, appointed Sheikha Mozah and other development experts, including the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and celebrity philanthropist Bob Geldof, to push for MDG success over the next five years. Education activists highlight some gains. Primary-school enrolment in developing regions reached 89 per cent in 2008, up from 83 per cent in 2000. But that still leaves about 69 million school-age children out of the classroom - almost half of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sheikha Mozah warned that youngsters in conflict regions are less likely to see the inside of a classroom, and restated concerns she raised last year when Israeli shells were devastating Palestinian schools and homes in Gaza. While one child in 11 is left out of the classroom in low-income countries, only one child in three manages to access an education when their country is torn apart by conflict, she said, citing persistent instability in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Are we ready to protect educators in Iraq who are being kidnapped and assassinated?" she asked. "Are we ready to ensure educational supplies are not blocked from students in Gaza? Are we ready to ensure that every child in Afghanistan, girls and boys, going to school carrying their bags with them are not turned away?" The UN says building more schools and training teachers is one of the best ways to fight penury, estimating that 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all children mastered basic reading and writing skills.

Children born to literate mothers are 50 per cent more likely to survive beyond the age of five - equivalent to the saving of 1.8 million infant lives in sub-Saharan Africa in 2008, the UN says. In Burkina Faso, mothers with secondary education are twice as likely to give birth within the safety of a clinic as those with no schooling. Educating Kenyan women farmers will increase yields of maize, beans and cowpeas by more than a fifth, the UN says. Educated women in Malawi are better at preventing the spread of HIV, with knowledge about taking drugs during pregnancy reducing the chances of passing the virus to unborn children.

"Education is the key to unlock the potential to achieve all MDGs. An educated person is an independent, healthy and active citizen," Sheikha Mozah said. "Education provides hope and understanding. It enhances tolerance. It ensures that there are no disillusioned youth out in the street looking for answers through radical ideologies." Analysts point to large gaps in access to primary schools globally and call for donors to plug the $16bn education funding gap - arguing that girls, ethnic minorities and disabled children are less likely to get inside the classroom.

An estimated 56 million children will be out of school in 2015 - 8.3 million in Nigeria alone, the country with the largest number of uneducated children. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, about 38 million youngsters drop out of school each year. "Overall, progress has been made in achieving universal primary education. However, donors and states must now focus on the education of children living in conflict-affected and fragile states. This is a huge proportion of the 69 million and it's not improving," said Jasmine Whitbread, the head of Save the Children. "That's a huge waste of potential that can't be allowed to continue."