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The Scourge of Islamic Slavery

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Slavery is not an Islamic invention. Slave trade was an accepted way of life, fully established in all societies. Most of these slaves were white people, the word ‘slave,’ comes probably from the people of Eastern Europe, the Slavs. Without exception, the ancient world accepted slavery as normal and desirable.

The great civilizations of Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, were built upon slave labor. The Greeks, from whom we derive so many humanistic ideas, were dependent on slavery. Three quarters of the population of Athens were slaves. Even Plato’s Republic was based on slave labor. This was also the case of Rome. Under the Roman law, when a slave owner was found murdered, all his slaves were to be executed. In fact, half of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves.

However, Islam is unique concerning slavery, as it is legally and religiously permitted and endorsed. Slavery persisted in the Arab-Muslim world for centuries, from its beginning. Islam itself means “submission,” as in being a slave to Allah’s will. Slavery has been justified by Mohammed’s example, as laid out in the Hadith.

The main occupation of Arab tribes before Islam was raids on others (Ghazawat) in order to take booty (Ghan’im). They were not farmers nor traders, nor scientists or intellectuals. They were raiders. For the Arabs, warfare was an economic benefit to achieving human spoils of war: captives. Becoming Muslims has brought only a marginal change: instead of raiding on one another as a social-economic way of life, now came the religious order to raid on the infidels’ territories and the prize was to take much more valuable booty: fertile lands, rich property and huge amount of captives.

Muslims conquered, invaded, controlled countries and took spoils and prisoners as slaves. Islam allows Muslims to make slaves out of anyone who is captured among the infidels. Islam allows for the children of slaves to be raised as slaves. Islam allows for Christians and Jews to be made into slaves if they are captured in war. Muhammad and many of his companions bought, sold, freed and captured slaves. So it stands to reason that the Qur’an, the Hadith, and classical Islamic law have a notorious doctrine and practice of slavery. Islam perpetuated the institution.

While on a military campaign, Muslim soldiers had sex with their female captives, even though the women were married to polytheists. It is also permitted to have sex with prepubescent slave-girls. This is the attitude of Sahih Muslim, 008.3432. They also asked Muhammad about coitus-interruptus with their captive female slaves. Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: We got female captives in the war booty and we used to do coitus interruptus with them. So we asked Allah’s Apostle about it and he said, ‘Do you really do that?’ repeating the question thrice, ‘There is no soul that is destined to exist but will come into existence till the Day of Resurrection’ (Sahih Bukhari, 7:62:137; 5:59:459; 3:46:718; The Muwatta’ of Imam Ahmad, p. 240).

As Islam spread out across the globe, Muslims captured huge amount of slaves. Islam enslaved any nation or ethnic group that it conquered, from blacks in Africa to white men, and especially women from the Balkan, Hungary and Ukraine. Muslims also kidnapped young children, boys and girls, and Islamized them, the notorious one was the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans of the Devshirme system. Muslims also raided the European Mediterranean societies, from the 16th century on from North Africa, robed the inhabitants and kidnapped children and women, an era known as the naval piracy.

Slavery and the sexual exploitation of women are deeply ingrained in Islamic cultural tradition and religious commandments. Muslim slave owners were entitled by the Shari’ah to sexually exploit their slaves. Muslim nations had engaged in the slave trade for over 600 years before Europe became involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Almost 200 years after the British outlawed the slave trade Muslim markets continue in many countries the sale of slaves. There are persistent, credible reports that slavery exists in many Muslim countries in large numbers.

Muhammad owned slaves. He also traded with slaves, mainly women, and exchanged women concubines with others. He even asked his adopted son, Zayd, to give him his wife. Above all, he never decreed slavery as abolished. The institution was too lucrative and deeply rooted during the entire Islamic history. According to Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (Zad al-Ma’ad, 1:160), Muhammad had many male and female slaves. He used to buy and sell them, but he purchased more slaves than he sold.

After Muhammad fought the ‘Battle of the Trench,’ he slaughtered the Jewish men of Banu Qurayzah tribe and sold the women and children into slavery: verse 33:26-27: “And he drove down those of the People of the Book who backed them from their fortresses and He cast terror into their hearts; some of them you killed and some you took captive.” Ibn Ishaq records Muhammad’s massacre of the Jewish tribe, Banu Quraythah (pp. 465-66). Then the apostle dug trenches, and he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches… There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900… Then the apostle divided the property, wives, and children among the Muslims. Some of the captive women he sent to Najd and sold them for horses and weapons.

The same happened when Muhammad attacked Khaybar, where the women were distributed amongst the Muslims.’ Muhammad (then about 60 years old) obtained for himself the very beautiful teenage girl, Safiya who appealed for her freedom. Instead he had sex with her (Ibn Ishaq, p. 511; Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:143; Sahih Muslim, 8:3326; Sunan Abu Dawud, 2:11:2118). Sahih Bukhari (5:59:512) records the occupation of Khaybar: “Khaybar is destroyed. The inhabitants of Khaybar came out running on the roads. The Prophet ordered their warriors killed, their offspring and woman taken as captives” “We conquered Khaybar, took the captives, and the booty was collected. Dihya came and said, ‘O Allah’s Prophet! Give me a slave girl from the captives.’ The Prophet said, ‘Go and take any slave girl’” (1:8:367).

The same horror occurred with beautiful Juwairiyah, after her peaceful tribe was attacked as they watered their cattle. The men were killed and the women and children enslaved and shared amongst the Muslims (Sahih Bukhari, 3:46:717; Sahih Muslim, 19:4292; Sunan Abu Dawud, 29:3920).

In many cases Muhammad gave girls to two of his sons-in-law and to a friend just to enjoy them (Ibn Ishaq, p. 593; al-Tabari, vol. 8, pp. 29-30). On pp. 592-3 we read that Muhammad enslaved 6000 women and children plus innumerable sheep and camels. As for Ali he said “Women are plentiful, and you can easily change one for another.

The Qur’an includes multiple references to slaves, slave women, slave concubines. Islam accepts the institution of slavery. It was also perceived as a means of converting non-Muslims to Islam. Slaves are mentioned in at least twenty-nine verses of the Qur’an. Muslims are allowed to have sexual relation with slave-girls. Slaves are called in the Qur’an as Mulk al-Yamin, “the right hand possesses” (4:24). All Islamic Schools of Jurisprudence agree about the enforcement of this verse. ‘What your right hand possesses’ refers to slaves and is found in many places: 4:3,24,25,36; 16:71; 23:6; 24:31,33,58; 30:28; 33:50,52,55; 70:30.

The verse (4:24) says: And forbidden to you are wedded wives of other people… except those whom your right hands possess. Ibn Kathir, one of the most authoritative and highly regarded classical commentators of the Sunni world, writes of these female captives of war: “except those whom you acquire through war, for you are allowed such women after making sure they are not pregnant. Imam Ahmad recorded that Abu Said Al-Khudri said, “We captured some women from the area of Awtas who were already married, and we disliked having sexual relations with them because they already had husbands. So, we asked the Prophet about this matter, and this Ayah was revealed… Consequently, we had sexual relations with these women.”

Thus, women captives are forced to have sex with their Muslim masters, regardless of the marital status of the women. That is, the masters are allowed to break their marriage and have sex with them. Other verses maintains: “…you may marry other women who seem good to you: two, three, or four of them. But if you fear that you cannot maintain equality among them marry one only or any slave-girls you may own” (4:3). “Prophet, we have made lawful for you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave-girls whom Allah has given you as booty…” (33:50).

In 33.50, Allah gives Muhammad and all Muslim men the right to take slaves and have sex with female slaves. These are Allah given religious rights. See also 23:1-7; 70:29-30; 4.24. The Hadith contains many hundreds of descriptions of Muslims raping women captured in battle or having sex with their household slaves. This is their right ordained by Allah. Many descriptions of sex with slaves is also found dealing with ‘Azl. Coitus interruptus, withdrawing the penis before ejaculation (Sahih Muslim, 22:8; Sahih Bukhari, 8:77:600; Sunan Abu Dawud, 11:2166).

So, A Muslim men were allowed to have sex anytime with slave females (4:3, 4:29, 33:49). A Muslim could not be put to death for murdering a slave (2:178). Verse 33:52 says: “You [Prophet] are not permitted to take any further wives, nor to exchange the wives you have for others, even if these attract you with their beauty. But this does not apply to your slave-girls. Muhammad took a slave woman right immediately after his massacre of the Qurayza Jews, taking an extra-beautiful one from them.

Beheading the men and dividing up the boys as human spoils of war carry on Muhammad’s policy seen in Quran 33:26-27, in which he enslaved the women and children of the Qurayzah tribe of Jews. Tabari (vol. 11, p. 55), describes conquests during the caliphate of Abu Bakr (632-634) that represent many others throughout Islamic history. In Ayn al-Tamr, Iraq, Khalid bin al-Walid, Sayf al-Islam, “beheaded all the men of the fortress and took possession of all that their fortress contained, seizing as spoils what was in it… Khalid found in their church forty boys who were studying the Gospels behind a locked door, which he broke down in getting to them. He asked, “Who are you?” They replied, “Hostages.” He divided them among the Muslims who had performed outstandingly in battle.

In Islam Jihad to occupy the world and to force it to follow or be subjugated under Islam encompasses the ‘institutions’ of Dhimmitude and slavery. The major source of slaves was the constant Muslim raids into infidel areas, which were depopulated. Islam’s slavery was genocidal as males were generally slaughtered, while females and children were taken. The children were removed from their family and culture, forcibly converted, and used as soldiers. Slaves and their offspring were owned by the master and passed on as part of his property to inherit. Under Islam slaves have no legal rights at all – they are just a property.

Dhimmis were also forced to hand over their women and children either to pay their taxes or under laws demanding them as tribute so they became slaves and concubines. Hence the entire occupied populations were destroyed.

Most important the Shari’ah legalizes slavery, and if it is permitted in the Scriptures, nobody can abolish or even change it. All Schools of Islamic Jurisprudence traditionally accepted the institution of slavery. Slaves are regarded as inferior in Islamic law. They are not permitted to possess or inherit property, or conduct independent business. The testimony of slaves is not admissible in court; slaves cannot choose their own marriage mate, and can be forced to marry who their masters want. Slave women were required mainly as concubines and menials. A Muslim slaveholder was entitled by law to the sexual enjoyment of his slave women. There is no limit on the number of concubines a master may possess. The Islamic market demand for children was much higher than adults. Organized slave traders smuggled children into Islamic markets where they are enslaved, mutilated, and also serve as male concubine.

The Shari’ah sets Jihad laws as ‘warfare to establish the religion’ (Reliance of the Traveller, o9.0 p. 599), specify the enslavement or death if they resist, of women and children (o9.10 p. 603). Captured women and children become slaves and the woman’s previous marriage is immediately annulled (o9.13 p. 604). Vassal states were forced to supply thousands of their children annually as ‘tribute’ and these people became slaves.

Ibn Rushd compiled a compendium of the opinions of jurists up to his time. He summarizes various legal opinions about slavery: it is allowed to harm the enemy’s life, property and personal liberty, enslavement and ownership. There is a consensus about slavery, their men and women, old and young, the common people and the elite. For Ibn Rushd the example of Muhammad was extremely important for establishing the Shari’ah concerning slavery.

Bernard Lewis has put it correctly: the essence of the Shari’ah is three key elements: a) Muslim superiority over non-Muslims; b) male superiority over females; c) the legitimacy of violence to extend Islam to occupy the world. In his Race and Color in Islam, he brings many quotations and historical examples as to introduce the high need for slaves, whether acquired by violence or by commercial exchange. It was also legitimized by Islamic Scriptures and by racist felling of the Arabs, being superior species compare to the inferiority of blacks.

According to Peter Hammond, Slave Raids into Africa, the overall toll of black Africans who were transited to American and Muslim slave markets, is estimated at least 112 million, and more than 50%, in some areas and eras even 80% of those killed in the raids or died in transit. Over a million of white Europeans also ended up in the Islamic slave markets, women being a particular favorite of Arab slavers.

Humphrey J. Fisher, in his book, Slavery in the History of Muslim Black Africa, shows the ever cruel history of Islamic slave trade in Africa. The tribes’ territories were harshly Islamized, while 120 million blacks were captured as slaves, almost half of them were perished while driven on the routes to be shipped to America and the Middle East markets.

Ronald Segal in his Islam’s Black Slaves documents that from its emergence Islam has established and institutionalized slavery and slave trade. When Islam conquered the Persian Sassanid Empire and much of the Byzantine Empire, female slaves were required in considerable numbers as concubines and domestic workers. The harems of rulers became enormous in size, and castration of male slaves was common place.

Segal records: In the 1570’s, a Frenchman visiting Egypt found many thousands of blacks on sale in Cairo markets. In 1665 Father Antonios Gonzalis, a Spanish/Belgian traveler, reported 800-1000 slaves on sale in the Cairo market on every single day. In 1838, it was estimated that 10000 to 12000 slaves were arriving in Cairo each year. He also observed that “White slaves from Christian Spain, Central and Eastern Europe’ were also shipped into the Middle East and served in the “palaces of rulers and the establishments of the rich.”

Even as late as the 19th Century, it was noted that in Mecca “there are few families that do not keep slaves, and they all keep mistresses in common with their lawful wives.” Even Ronald Segal, who was most sympathetic to Islam and prejudiced against Christianity, admits that well over 30 million black Africans have died at the hands of Muslim slave traders or ended up in Islamic slavery.

The Islamic slave trade took place across the Sahara Desert, from the coast of the Red Sea, and from East Africa across the Indian Ocean. The Trans Sahara trade was conducted along six major slave routes. As for the 19th Century alone, of which we have more accurate records, 1.2 million slaves were brought across the Sahara into the Middle East, 450000 down the Red Sea and 442000 from East African coastal ports. That is a total of 2 million black slaves. At least 8 million more were calculated to have died before reaching the Muslim slave markets.

For John Alembillah Azumah, Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa, “…the worst, most inhumane and most diabolical institution of the black African slave trade was initiated, refined, perpetrated and implemented by the Mohammedan Arabs and later aided and abetted by the black converts to Mohammedan Islam.”

Robert O. Collins and James M. Burns in their A History of Sub-Saharan Africa, prove that “The advent of the Islamic age coincided with a sharp increase in the African slave trade.” Africa has become a major supplier of slaves for North Africa and Islamic Spain. The other route was through the shores of East Africa to the Americas. The earliest Muslim account of slaves crossing the Sahara to Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast was written in the seventh century. From the ninth century to the nineteenth slave trade was the biggest Islamic industry in Africa. In fact it was the only industry.

By the Middle-Ages, the Arab word ‘Abd’ was in general use to denote a black slave while the word “Mamluk” referred to a white slave. Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) wrote: “The Negro nations are as a rule submissive to slavery, because they have attributes that are quite similar to dumb animals.” When the Fatimid came to power in Egypt they slaughtered all the tens of thousands of black military slaves and raised an entirely new slave army. From Persia to Egypt to Morocco, slave armies became common-place. After Muslim armies attacked and conquered Spain, they took thousands of slaves back to Damascus. The key prize was 1000 virgins as slaves. They were forced to go all the way back to Damascus.

Robert C. Davis, in his Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800, estimates that North African Muslim pirates abducted and enslaved more than 1 million Europeans between 1530 and 1780. Thousands in coastal areas were seized every year to work as galley slaves, laborers and concubines for Muslim slave masters in what is today Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Oman and Saudi-Arabia. He indicates that perhaps one and one-quarter million white European Christians were enslaved by Barbary Muslims. Jihad piracy and slave raids were a fact of life in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions for the better part of a thousand years.

Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, records. In 1796, a British traveler reported a caravan of 5000 slaves departing from Darfur. Just in the Arabic plantations off the East Coast of Africa, on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, there were 769000 black slaves. In the 19th Century, East African black slave trade included 347,000 slaves shipped to Arabia and Persia.

Suzanne Everett, in her History of Slavery records: In 1818, al-Mukani ruler in Tripoli “waged war on all its defenseless neighbors and annually carried off 4000 to 5000 slaves. The traders speak of slaves as farmers do of cattle. Murders, tortures and rape abuse were day by day habits. Records in Morocco in 1876 show that the market prices for slaves varied from £10 to £30; female slaves comprised vast majority of sales with ‘attractive virgins’ £40 to £80. “A considerable majority of the slaves crossing the Sahara, were destined to become concubines in North Africa and the Middle East.”

Murray Gordon records: “Muhammad took pains in urging the faithful to free their slaves as a way of expiating their sins. Some Muslim scholars have taken this to mean that his true motive was to bring about a gradual elimination of slavery. Far more persuasive is the argument that by lending the moral authority of Islam to slavery, Muhammad assured its legitimacy. Thus, in lightening the fetter, he riveted it ever more firmly in place.”

He analyzes the sexual aspects of slavery. “For a better part of the Middle-Ages, Europe served as a valuable source of slaves who were prized in the Muslim world as soldiers, concubines, and eunuchs.” It is important to note that this pattern was established long before the European colonial period. In fact, “Eunuchs commanded the highest prices among slaves, followed by young and pretty white women… White women were almost always in greater demand than Africans, and Arabs were prepared to pay much higher prices for Circassian and Georgian women.” This was also the Fate of Slav women from the Balkans and Hungary. Abyssinian (Ethiopian) girls were considered the “second best.”

Slave taking rapidly advanced into a full-scale industry, with a disastrous impact that was apparent at the time and for centuries to come. Giles Milton in his White Gold, has noticed that the seventeenth century represented a dark period out of which Spanish and Italian societies emerged as mere shadows compare to the past. Arab slavery raids of kidnapping women and young children continued just below the surface of the coastal culture of the European Mediterranean even into the first years of the twentieth century.

The Indian historian, K. S. Lal, in his books, Theory and practice of Muslim state in India, and Islamic Jihad: the Legacy of forced conversion, imperialism and Slavery,   brings horrible data of how Islamic Jihadists conquered India, butchered its inhabitants by millions, and developed a huge peculiar system of slavery there. Raiding non-Muslim territories became a constant phenomenon. Five centuries after Muslims came to power in the territory, the animist hill peoples completely disappeared as a result of their conversion through enslavement into the Muslim populace of Malaya, Sumatra and Borneo. By the raiding system, especially of children, these areas has become Islamic. In many places of Southeast Asia, the enslavement was so entrenched so that the entire population, polytheistic Hindu, Buddhist and Animist creeds, became Muslim or exterminated.

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New Social Compact

Delivering On Our Promise of Universal Education

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A young girl studies at home in Gujarat, India. © UNICEF/Panjwani

Our investment in education – especially for children caught in crisis and conflict – is our investment in a better future.

Co-Signed by: Federal Councillor of the Swiss Confederation, Ignazio Cassis; Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany, Svenja Schulze; Minister of Education, Niger, Ibrahim Natatou; Minister of International Development, Norway, Anne Beathe Tvinnereim; Minister of General Education and Instruction, South Sudan, Awut Deng Acuil; Minister of Education, Colombia, Alejandro Gaviria; Former UK Prime Minister, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of ECW’s High-Level Steering Group The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown

As we mark the International Day of Education, world leaders must make good on their promise of providing quality education for all by 2030.

Education is our investment in peace where there is war, our investment in equality where there is injustice, our investment in prosperity where there is poverty.

Make no mistake about it, there is a global education crisis that threatens to unravel decades of development gains, spur new conflicts, and upend economic and social progress across the globe.  

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted at last year’s Transforming Education Summit: “If we are to transform our world by 2030 as envisaged by the Sustainable Development Goals, then the international community must give this (education) crisis the attention it deserves.”

When Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, was founded in 2016, we estimated that 75 million crisis-impacted children required education support. Today, that number has tripled to 222 million.

Of the 222 million children whose right to an education has been ripped from their hands by the multiplying impacts of conflict, climate change and other protracted crises, an estimated 78 million are out of school all together – more than the total populations of France, Italy or the United Kingdom.

Even when they are in school, many are not achieving minimum proficiencies in reading or math. Think about this terrifying statistic: 671 million children and adolescents worldwide cannot read. That’s more than 8% of the world’s total population. That’s an entire generation at risk of being lost  

As we have seen from the war in Ukraine, the challenges of the Venezuelan  migration to Colombia and South America, the unforgiveable denial of education for girls in Afghanistan, and a devastating climate change-driven drought in the Horn of Africa that has created a severe hunger crisis for 22 million people, we are living in an interconnected world. The problems of Africa, the Middle East, South America, and beyond are the problems of the world that we share together   

Every minute of every day, children are fleeing violence and persecution in places like Myanmar, the Sahel, South America and the Middle East. Every minute of every day, boys are being recruited as child soldiers in Somalia, the Central African Republic and beyond. Every minute of every day, the climate crisis brings us closer to the end of times, and children go hungry because they are denied their right to go to school, where they might just have their only meal of the day. And amid conflict, migration and climate change, governments like Colombia are struggling to secure the most basic living and education conditions for children in hard-to-reach borders.

It’s an assault on our humanity, a moral affront to the binding promises outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a giant step backwards in our persistent efforts – against all odds – to find peace in our times.

There is hope. By embracing a new way of working and delivering with humanitarian speed and development depth, ECW and its strategic partners have reached 7 million children in just five years, with plans to reach 20 million more over the next four years.

Imagine what an education can mean for a child of war? In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 13-year-old Nyota lost her father and brothers in a brutal attack on her village. Her family’s home was burnt to the ground.

In a country where 3.2 million children are out of school, Nyota’s future was bleak. Would she be a child bride, the victim of sexual violence, another tragic statistic in a forgotten crisis?

No. She did not give up. With the support of an innovative programme funded by ECW, Nyota is back in school. “When I have completed my studies, I dream of becoming the President of my country to end the war here. That will allow children to study in peace and not endure the same horrible things that I have.”

Nyota is not alone: we have received inspiring letters from girls and boys in over 20 crisis-affected countries across the world that underscore the amazing value of education in transforming lives and creating a better future for generations to come.

On February 16, world leaders are gathering for the Education Cannot Wait High-Level Financing Conference in Geneva. Hosted by ECW and Switzerland – and co-convened by Colombia, Germany, Niger, Norway and South Sudan – the conference provides world leaders, businesses, foundations and high-net-worth individuals with the opportunity to deliver on our promise of education for all. The aim is to raise US$1.5 billion for the next four years.

As the co-conveners of this seminal event, we are calling on the people of the world to invest in the promise of an education. It’s the best investment we could make in delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Nyota and millions like her are not giving up on their dream, and we shouldn’t give up on them. We have promises to keep. 

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Education starts early – or it should

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Authors: Manos Antoninis and Silvia Montoya*

When children attend early childhood education, they are not just learning their ABCs and 123s, they are learning how to solve problems, live in harmony with others and communicate effectively. Going to pre-primary education increases the  chance to grow and flourish in a nurturing and stimulating environment. It is an opportunity to provide children with the skills they need to succeed in school and in life.

Thankfully, early childhood education is something that more and more children are accessing: over the past two decades, the rates of those attending rose from 65% to 75%. Countries have put pen to paper, committing to taking this up a level. As part of a multi-year exercise, they have set national benchmarks for the progress they feel they can make between now and 2030 on helping more young children start their education in their early years, alongside other objectives. On the occasion of the 2023 International Day of Education, UNESCO published a global report, the 2023 SDG4 Scorecard showing how fast countries are progressing towards their national benchmarks on Sustainable Development Goal 4 (quality education). These benchmarks commit countries to together open school doors to 95% of five-year-olds by the 2030 deadline for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

These ambitions are not messing around. Conversely to what you might expect, countries have actually set their targets far higher than one might expect considering how they’ve done in the past. Even if they managed to improve at the rate of the historically fastest-improving quarter of countries, they would only manage to reach the stage where 83% of children were going to early childhood education. At present, therefore, barely one in three countries is on track with their self-set targets. How can we help them speed up? 

Having monitored education for the past 20 years, a few clear lessons jump out that can help countries break the speed barriers we’re keen to impart. While simple education reform is not very common, this first example is at least compact. Our recommendation is for countries to legislate and provide for free and compulsory education, which about a half of countries have done so far. Since 2015, for example, the introduction of three years of free education in Armenia, four years in Uzbekistan and three – and later five – years in Azerbaijan is associated with a large increase in participation rates.  While one policy change cannot be assessed out of context, there is a clear jump in children’s early education access across these countries post the new legislation.

Where we see these laws lagging is in low income and, more generally, sub-Saharan African countries. For all those who join us in believing in the importance of the foundations that early childhood can bring, Sub-Saharan Africa should be a region where we direct our support over the coming years. Not only are fewer than half of children starting school early, but its population prospects will make the challenge harder over time. It is projected that sub-Saharan Africa will surpass Central and Southern Asia by 2026 as the region with the largest number of 4-5 year olds in the world. This cohort will grow by 1 million on average in the next 20 years. Population growth will slow down but will still reach 100 million in 2069. The region will be the home to a staggering 43% of all five-year-olds on planet earth by the end of the century.

The second recommendation we believe can make a difference is also a governance issue, and relates to the fact that the first education experiences of 40% of children in the world today is with private providers. Much of this trend can be linked to the fact that there was not enough supply related to demand, and private providers grew to fill the gap.

This phenomenon can’t be ignored in some areas of the world. In Oceania, for example, some countries have close to 100% of preschool students enrolled in non-state institutions. These can be for-profit and non-profit organizations, such as child-care centers, preschools, and home-based childcare providers, for example.  Their presence can bring significant financial implications, and therefore, barriers, to families, and detract from the original reason they exist in the first place: to increase education for all.  With the provision part removed from government’s control, it means that their ability to regulate the quality and equity of the myriad of alternative early childhood education providers – and monitor them – is vital.

For much of the pandemic, the GEM Report team at UNESCO mapped over 200 country profiles on its PEER website to look further into the regulations countries currently have for private providers in early childhood education. What we found is that those covering equity are in the minority: only 26% of countries support specific vulnerable populations’ tuition fee payments and just 15% prohibit non-state providers from operating for profit.  On the positive side, however, we also found that turning these numbers on their head could also see a huge surge in participation rates. When governments have regulations in place helping out some of the most marginalized groups with tuition fees, for instance, the percentage of children who participate in organized learning one year before entry to primary school is higher by 13 percentage points, whereas countries with fee-setting regulations have a 7 percentage-point higher participation.

Our third but equally critical recommendation covers the extent to which governments prioritise education in the early years in their spending. We looked at the countries with data from the last two years and found they were spending just 0.43% of GDP on pre-primary education – pittance in comparison to the benefits an early education can bring. There is a clear correlation between how much was spent on public education and the rise of participation rates as a result. Doubling spending from 0.25 to 0.50 of GDP, we found, triples participation rates in public preschools from 20% to 60% on average, and is a clear win for improving progress on this issue.

As any education policy maker will tell you, there is no one easy fix for system reform. Sadly, this is the reason the sector fails to attach the funding it needs to transform and deliver to match our expectations. But, where there are lessons that our past mistakes and successes have taught us, we should take them, and not waste further time. Education can and should start early. If we legislate, regulate and finance appropriately, we can help countries’ ambitions to make that happen a reality.

*Silvia Montoya, Director of UNESCO Institute of Statistics

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A Cry for Help: Pakistan’s Broken Education System

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Photo: UNICEF/PAKISTAN/Asad Zaidi

The saying “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”, attributed to Derek Bok – the former president of Harvard University, holds a plethora of resonance for a developing country like Pakistan. Compared to the global standard of spending 4% of GDP on education, Pakistan only spends around 2.3% of its GDP on education, which happens to be the lowest in the South-Asian region.  The inadequate spending on schools stems from the government’s nonchalant attitude and general disinterest in the education sector. Because of this, Pakistan’s budget allocation for education is far less than what is advised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

The 2019 Annual Status of Education Report shows the overall literacy rate in the country to be 60%, with 71% male literacy rate compared to 49% female literacy. Despite these statistics showing an improvement from the past trends, the Human Development Report of 2019 remained unfazed. According to the findings of the report, Pakistan failed to show significant improvements in key educational indicators concerned with the rate of literacy, overall enrolment ratio, and education related expenditure. In the same year, Pakistan was also ranked 152nd out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI) under the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). 

Comparing Pakistan’s Education sector to other developing countries in the region further paints a dismal picture, as Pakistan lingers behind it its quest in providing quality education. Pakistan suffers from the third-highest primary school dropout rates in the region, estimating at 23%, only behind countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal. In a 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report titled “Education for People and Planet: Creating Sustainable Futures for All”, it was found that Pakistan is 50 years behind in achieving its primary education goals, while adding another 10 years in its path to achieving its secondary education goals.

For the most part, the policy maker’s one-stop solution for increasing the level of education in Pakistan has focused on raising the enrollment rates in primary schools. While this approach emphasized more on the quantity of education being provided, it has done little to cater to the quality and expense of the education itself. This is reflected in the learning levels of public schools in Pakistan, which are astonishingly low as student’s performance in academics is hugely underwhelming, compared to the acceptable standard. This shortcoming in the public education is mainly attributed to the dearth of incentives for public sector teachers. Which translates into low teaching effort, since any chance at salary increment and promotion is directly related to seniority and experience and not the teacher’s actual performance.

In view of these prevalent conditions of the public sector education, Pakistan witnessed a sudden boom in low-fee private education institutions in early 2000’s, which outnumbered state-run schools in both quantity and quality. With ample availability of low-cost teachers in rural areas due to lack of other job opportunities, these schools quickly expanded in the region and provided multiple schooling options for the 63% of the population which resides in the rural setting. Despite the private sector teachers being underpaid and under-experienced compared to their public sector counterparts, the learning levels of students in private schools has been much better. This is mostly due to effective teaching pedagogy, curriculum design and proper oversight which gives private schools an edge over public sector ones. 

In the Human Rights Watch Report titled “Shall I Feed My Daughter, Or Educate Her?”: Barriers to Girls’ Education in Pakistan”, the Pakistani government’s inability to adequately  educate the girls also surfaced. Liesl Gerntholtz, the Women’s Rights Director at Human Rights Watch commented “The Pakistan government’s failure to educate children is having a devastating impact on millions of girls”. The report stated that the majority of the 22.5 million children that are out of school are girls, who are simply barred from attaining education.

However, many of the barriers to girl’s education lie within the education system of the country itself. The State takes on a lasses-faire approach towards providing education in the country. And instead relies on private sector education and Madrassahs to bridge the gaps in education provision. Thus the girls are deprived of a decent education in the process. The government’s inadequate investment in schools is another main culprit for the number of girls that remain out of school. As girls finish primary school, secondary schools are not as widespread and their access to the next grade is hindered. Furthermore, while the Constitution of Pakistan claims that primary schooling be free of charge, it is not actually the case. Hence, most parents with constrained resources opt to educate their sons over their daughters. As a result, once girls are dropped out of schools, there is no compulsion by the state to re-admit the girls into school. Therefore, a chance once lost is lost forever.

Towards the end of 2019, Covid-19, which emerged in the wet markets of Wuhan, quickly took the world by storm. It forced the entire world into lockdown, and resulted in a major humanitarian and economic catastrophe, ultimately affecting the Education Sector as well. This compelled Pakistan to take swift notice of the virus and announce country-wide closure of educational institutes from beginning of February 2020. It wasn’t for another six months that educational institutions were reopened with strict SOPs in place, only to be shut down again amidst the second wave of the virus. And so due to these conditions, the education sector in Pakistan faced a devastating loss of learning. The virus not only exposed the cracks in the country’s education system, but it also further amplified them.

According to a report published by the World Bank “Learning Losses in Pakistan Due To Covid-19 School Closures: A Technical Note on Simulation Results”, it was predicted that a loss of livelihood due to Covid-19 could translate into a severe case of children dropping out of schools. The study estimated an additional 930,000 children that are expected to drop out of the fold of education, and thus increasing out-of-school percentage by 4.2 percent.

Similarly, the report also mentioned that the learning levels in schools could drop to anywhere between 0.3 and 0.8 years of learning. Therefore, an average student now only attains an education level of 5 years due to poor quality of education, despite going to school for 9 years. Furthermore, in wake of covid-19, the share of children who are unable to read basic texts by age 10, represented by “Learning Poverty” are further expected to go up 4 percent from 75 to 79 percent. As schools were shut down across the country, many of them were also unable to transition into online mode of learning. This was because the state failed to provide internet access to remote regions of the country. Hence, Covid-19 proved to be a huge setback for the education sector of Pakistan.

To conclude, while significant steps have been taken to strengthen the education sector of Pakistan, such as the unanimous passing of the Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan and the dedication towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to provide quality and equitable education; there still remains a gap between policy formation and its implementation. Despite the education policies of Pakistan focusing on science and technology, nationalizing private education institutions, increasing the number of student enrollment and improving their access to higher education, it still failed to improve in the education indicator of the HDI in the past decade. In view of this, Pakistan needs to rethink its education policies and fill gaps that currently exist between what is decided and what is implemented.

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