A Lesson We Can All Learn

By Mary Njoroge

For some children, school seems like a chore. What parent can’t relate to nudging their child out of bed and sending them to school when they’d rather stay home and play? Or who has seen their children’s faces light up when bad weather forces them to stay home?

Even the best students can be forgiven for feeling this way in the U.S., where education is considered to be a fundamental right. But many millions of children around the world are denied this right, and wish that they had the same opportunities as children in other countries. 72 million primary school-age children are not in school, kept away by poverty and diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.

This month, activists in the U.S. and around the world, including in my home country of Kenya, will be observing a Week of Action for global education from April 21-27. Educators will be taking part in the “World’s Biggest Lesson” on April 23. Millions of school-children will simultaneously learn about the importance of allowing all of the world’s children to have access to an education, and what they can do to help their counterparts in their own countries and around the world. Although this lesson will primarily be taught in classrooms, it is a lesson we can all learn.

Unfortunately, many in my home country are experiencing what it is like to lose the opportunity to go to school. Five years ago, when I served as Director of Basic Education for the Ministry of Education, the Kenyan government waived fees for primary schools. Many developing countries charge fees for students to attend school. Though these fees may not be more than a few dollars, it is a heavy price to pay for families who make less than a dollar a day. When the fees in Kenya were eliminated, one million children who previously could not afford to attend school filled classrooms, almost overnight. The increase in students prompted the government to invest more in education, and plans were made to eliminate fees for older students.

However, recent political unrest has left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Over 300,000 children living in displaced persons camps have either lost their families, homes, or schools. Recently, the New York Times described the plight of two siblings, aged 9 and 10, abandoned by their father. Asked if they would like to stay in the camp or go home, the young boy responded, “I just want to go to school.” Bereft of home and family, the one thing this young boy needs most to give him a sense of grounding and normalcy is a classroom.

The desire to attain an education is strong in the developing world, because the benefits go beyond reading and writing. This is especially true for girls, who often are kept from school because of cultural or religious obstacles or because a lack of resources, such as private latrines, compromises their privacy, hygiene or safety.

Children who attend school are more likely to learn how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS. The Global Campaign for Education estimates that if every primary school child had access to a classroom, 700,000 cases of HIV could be prevented each year.

In 2000, the countries of the world agreed to a goal to provide universal access to education by 2015. Countries like Kenya and others are doing what they can to build better schools and retain more teachers, but they cannot do it alone. Congress is considering legislation that would authorize enough funding to meet the U.S. commitment to this, and other international goals. The Education for All Act would authorize $1 billion in basic education this year, scaling up to $3 billion in 2012.

Current events in Kenya show how critical education is to a healthy, peaceful and productive society. An education will help prevent that little boy who wants to go to school from growing up in desperate conditions. This month, let us take this lesson out of the classrooms, and into the offices of policymakers. We must teach them, as we teach our children, that by passing this legislation, we are investing in a better world for our own children, as well as children in other countries. When the world’s children are educated, we all benefit. It is a lesson we cannot afford to ignore.

Mary Njoroge is the former Director of Basic Education for Kenya’s Ministry of Education. She retired in 2006 after 31 years with the ministry, and now serves as an educational consultant.

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