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Reform of mental health services: An urgent need and a human rights imperative

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Already in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was warning that substantial investment in mental health services was necessary to avert a mental health crisis. The evidence for the devastating impact of the pandemic on mental health is now overwhelming. The reasons for this are clear: the pandemic caused fear and anxiety for everyone, and many of us had to face illness, grief over lost family members, insecurity and loss of income. In addition to this extraordinary burden placed on our mental health, we were cut off from our usual support networks, friends and families, while the pandemic was also disrupting the delivery of existing mental health services themselves.

Not everyone has been affected in the same way by the pandemic, and mental health is no exception here. Among others, the mental health of certain demographics such as older persons, children and adolescents, and women, as well as that of disadvantaged groups such as persons with disabilities, LGBTI people and migrants has been affected more compared to the general population. For example, in a statement I co-signed with the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and numerous other human rights experts, we alerted states to increasing mental health problems for LGBTI people, in particular youth, notably as a result of having to shelter with family members who were unsupportive of or hostile towards their LGBTI identity.

I recently published an Issue Paper entitled “Protecting the right to health through inclusive and resilient health care for all” in which I set out twelve recommendations. These include universal health coverage (of which mental health services are an essential component), more equality and dignity for patients, more participation and empowerment in relevant decision-making, the promotion of transparency and accountability throughout policy cycles, and better health communication policies. Since the right to health is defined as the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, these recommendations naturally apply to mental health care as well. Some recommendations, however, are more specific to mental health, such as those related to the need to ensure that mental health services are accessible to all when needed, of appropriate quality and affordable, to transition from an institutional to a community-based model and to eliminate coercive practices in mental health services.

Mental health systems: a longstanding source of human rights violations

While the additional strain generated by the pandemic is new, the mental health situation and lack of services has been a neglected human rights crisis in Europe for a long time. Despite the suffering and economic burden caused by mental health problems, mental health spending in the WHO European region was estimated to amount to only 1% of total health expenditure in 2019, and the majority of that expenditure was channelled towards mental health hospitals. In a very important report in 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health was already raising the alarm over the fact that “the arbitrary division of physical and mental health and the subsequent isolation and abandonment of mental health has contributed to an untenable situation of unmet needs and human rights violations”.

In my Issue Paper on health, I called on governments to pay attention to the essential social determinants of health in order to rebuild more inclusive and resilient health care systems, notably social protection, living conditions, working environment and education. These are all the more relevant for mental health, since mental well-being is determined not only by individual attributes but also by the social environment which can prevent, cause or aggravate mental health problems. In recent decades, a human rights-based, holistic and psychosocial understanding of mental health has been emerging, but this approach still faces a lot of resistance in many of our member states, where a reductionist, biomedical paradigm remains prevalent. Further problems identified in the aforementioned report of the Special Rapporteur are power asymmetries in mental health policies and services, and the biased use of evidence in mental health. In combination, these reinforce a vicious cycle of stigmatisation, disempowerment, social exclusion and coercion.

In order to rise to the challenge posed by the pandemic for mental health services, it is essential to reform them, as well as relevant laws and policies, urgently and from the ground up. As with health policy generally, the imperative to prevent human rights violations must be the guiding principle behind these reforms.

The human rights of persons with mental health problems or psychosocial disabilities (i.e. disabilities arising from the interaction between a person with a mental health condition and their environment) are routinely violated in two significant ways. Firstly, their human rights continue to be violated by mental health services themselves, notably because they often display a tendency towards paternalism, coercion and institutionalisation. Secondly, affected patients may not have access to the care they need to achieve the highest attainable standard of health. In this connection, we should bear in mind that this right depends on the realisation of many other human rights, notably those enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Coercion: a persistent source of human rights violations

In a recent report on its visit to Bulgaria, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) documented how patients in psychiatric hospitals were subjected to widespread and systematic ill-treatment at the hands of staff: they were slapped, pushed, punched, kicked, beaten with sticks, chained to beds and medicated without consent. While this example is particularly horrific, we should not forget that similar institutions, and the underlying approach taking coercion for granted, are still common in the majority of our member states, as demonstrated, for example, in recent exposés on the situation of psychiatric hospitals in Malta. My own Office has addressed human rights violations caused by such institutions in a large number of member states, including in an intervention before the European Court of Human Rights.

Why is this still accepted in 2021? Historically, fear, rejection and isolation have been our default response to persons with mental health problems. The ingrained fear and stigma of mental illness is still very strong, fuelling prejudice and the narrative that persons with mental health problems pose a danger to themselves and to society, against all available statistical evidence to the contrary – persons with mental health problems are in fact far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Mental health laws that normalise closed institutions and forced treatment confirm and reinforce these prejudices. Furthermore, while there is ample evidence that coercive treatment may lead to substantial trauma and that fear of coercion can actually deter persons experiencing mental ill-health from seeking help, there appears to be little scientific evidence to substantiate the supposed benefits of forced treatment.

In 2019, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe unanimously adopted a groundbreaking Resolution calling on member states to end coercion in mental health, pointing to the fact that the number of persons subjected to coercion was still growing in Europe. It noted that so-called safeguards to prevent excessive use of coercion had not reduced but, on the contrary, seemed to have increased coercion, for example in France following a reform in 2011: what is defined as last resort in legislation often becomes the default approach, especially when resources are scarce. The corresponding report presented to the Parliamentary Assembly also reflects my observations concerning the marked differences in the level of involuntary placements between countries, but also between different regions of the same country or even from one hospital to another, suggesting that the main cause of coercion is not the inherent dangerousness of persons or therapeutic necessity, but an institutional culture that confines more out of prejudice or habit. This interpretation is supported by research.

In my address to the Parliamentary Assembly prior to the adoption of this Resolution, I drew attention to how my own country work allowed me to see first-hand the vicious circles caused by a mental health approach based on coercion, which perpetuates the isolation of the very persons who need the support of their community the most, fuelling more stigma and irrational fear. The lack of community-based, voluntary mental health services also results in even more coercion and deprivation of liberty.

I have also shared my observation that safeguards supposed to protect persons from arbitrariness and ill-treatment are reduced to mere formalities because they operate in a legal system where persons with mental health problems do not even have a chance to have their voices heard, owing to the profound power asymmetry between the patient and physician in most mental health settings. Judges almost invariably follow the opinion of the psychiatrist over the wishes of the patient, when the law provides for such a possibility. At their worst, such safeguards do little more than ease the conscience of those who are in fact taking part in human rights violations.

My position on coercion in psychiatry and the Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly should be seen against the background of a growing consensus within the international community to consider involuntary measures without the informed consent of persons with mental health problems as human rights violations, or even as possibly amounting to torture. This is in large part due to the paradigm shift operated by the CRPD when it entered into force in 2008, and the efforts of civil society, in particular of persons with lived experience of mental health problems and psychosocial disabilities, to have their say in policy-making. As a result, a growing number of relevant international and national human rights bodies are now calling for an end to coercion and its replacement by community-based treatment options based on consent. This approach is slowly making headway in the medical community as well, as can be seen in the growing body of WHO guidance to states to reduce coercion, establish community-based alternatives and integrate mental health into primary care. Similarly, the World Psychiatric Association issued a position statement on the need to reduce coercion in October 2020.

This revolution is rooted in the CRPD and it would be a mistake to cling to older Council of Europe standards that place the bar lower. In this context, it is regrettable that work is still continuing in the Council of Europe on a draft Additional Protocol to the Oviedo Convention that reflects an outdated, biomedicine-driven approach reducing mental health to mental disorders and empowering physicians to forcibly confine and treat persons without consent, with virtually no limit being set on the duration of this placement or the treatments to be used. The vagueness of the definitions in this text and the trust in the judgement of a single physician, which appears misplaced given the human rights violations we are still witnessing on a daily basis, could easily give the impression of sanctioning even the worst kinds of human rights abuses in psychiatry. The opposition of the Parliamentary Assembly, several UN bodies including the treaty body of the CRPD, the unanimous protests of representative organisations of persons with psychosocial disabilities and my own opposition to this initiative have so far been ignored.

I call on member states to stop supporting such initiatives at international level, which may create confusion and become a stumbling block to necessary progress in advancing the human rights agenda when it comes to mental health. If new international standards do not nurture the paradigm shift from institutional to community-based care, and from coercive to consent-based care, they should at least do no harm by muddying the waters.

The way forward

A number of member states have started reviewing their mental health legislation in the light of these considerations, for example in Ireland and in the UK. What I found particularly positive with these two examples is the commitment to engage with civil society, and in particular users and providers of mental health services. Initiatives by representative organisations of persons with psychosocial disabilities to promote more inclusive policy-making, for example in the ongoing trialogue in Germany, are also to be commended. The active participation of persons with lived experience of using mental health services in defining policies, in particular, is a sine qua non condition of successful mental health reform, as their exclusion from the debate so far has allowed human rights violations to continue unchecked for as long as they have. This is also a general obligation under Article 4(3) of the CRPD.

The realisation of the right to full enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of mental health depends on the realisation of many other crucial human rights. In particular, member states need to conduct the necessary reforms of their mental health legislation in parallel with reforms in two crucial areas affecting core rights enshrined in the CRPD: legal capacity (Article 12) and the right to live independently and be included in the community (Article 19). Mental health care that truly respects the autonomy, dignity, will and preferences of service users is simply not possible so long as legal systems continue to tolerate substituted decision-making or segregation in institutions. Ongoing legal capacity reforms in our member states are very important in this respect. States must ensure that persons with mental health problems or psychosocial disabilities, including children, never lose their say on decisions involving their health, if necessary by providing the appropriate supports for decision-making, in order to ensure that mental health care is provided on the basis of free and informed consent. For as long as involuntary measures remain a reality, it is also crucial to ensure full access to justice to challenge any decision, an area where there are also some good practices, for example in the Netherlands.

As for institutions, I refer to the longstanding recommendations of my Office to put an end to their use, starting with immediate moratoria on future placements. Experience shows the crucial importance of closing large psychiatric hospitals where persons are involuntarily placed. To take one example, Italy was a pioneer in this respect by initiating a process of gradual closure of psychiatric hospitals from 1978, replacing them with alternatives closer to the community. While Italy is also facing a number of problems regarding the use of coercive measures in psychiatric establishments that still need to be addressed, it should be thought-provoking that the rate of involuntary placements in Italy today appear to be lower, by orders of magnitude, than in neighbouring states.

Reduction of coercive practices in psychiatric services, including the use of restraints and forced medication, and their progressive elimination should be another immediate priority. As mentioned above, the institutional culture and habits largely determine the prevalence of such measures. For example, my predecessor recommended to Denmark in 2013 that recourse to coercion in psychiatry be drastically reduced, and I was happy to note that a psychiatric centre in Ballerup had managed to put an end to the use of restraints as a first in the country, by training staff on conflict management and increasing physical activity for residents, without augmenting medication, for the benefit of both patients and staff.

The ultimate goal must be to replace institutions and a coercion-based mental health system by a recovery- and community-based model, which promotes social inclusion and offers a range of rights-based treatments and psychosocial support options. These can take many different forms and many models exist including, for example, support provided by peers or a support network, patient advocates/personal ombudspersons, advanced planning, community crisis resolution or open dialogue. It is also crucial to deconstruct the lingering stigma associated with seeking help for mental health problems, whether this is done in the school environment, at the workplace or in primary healthcare centres, through targeted awareness-raising and outreach. Only then can mental health services, as an integral part of primary care, be universally available to individuals throughout the entire life cycle. Once more, true involvement of persons with lived experience in the design, implementation, delivery and monitoring of these services is crucial.

Member states can take inspiration from several compilations of promising practices at the European and global levels, as well as ongoing projects and research conducted into community-based delivery of recovery-oriented mental health services, such as the RECOVER-E project running in Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania. I am also conscious of the potential impact of new technologies on mental health care, which represent both opportunities and serious risks for human rights, and I refer to my general recommendations concerning human rights and artificial intelligence.

In this context, I encourage states to pay special attention to the mental health of children and adolescents, not least because of the extraordinary strain that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on them. Lockdown measures and prolonged school closures have deprived them, more than other groups, of their usual routines, while exposing them to isolation and an increase in violence and abuse. We should not forget that childhood and adolescence are crucial periods for life-long mental health. Mental ill-health experienced in the formative years of one’s life, for example as a result of adversities or trauma, affects brain development and the ability to form healthy relationships and life skills. Children and adolescents therefore need non-bureaucratic access to mental health support, as early as necessary and as least invasively as possible, without any shame attached. Institutionalisation of children, on the other hand, has a devastating impact on childhood development. We also need to bear in mind that suicide was one of the leading causes of death among adolescents in the European region even before the pandemic, which makes recent evidence of a marked increase in anxiety levels, depression and self-harm among young people particularly alarming. In order to prevent future burdens on mental health systems, it is crucial to expand our capacities for early psychosocial interventions for children by building on innovative and community-based child mental health services, rather than pursuing the worrying trend of ever-increasing use of psychotropic medication on children.

Mental health reform is an extremely challenging task for all our member states, given the complexity of the issues and the huge gap between agreed international standards and the reality on the ground. This, however, makes it all the more urgent. Let us turn the current challenge of the pandemic into an opportunity, by thoroughly transforming mental health services in Europe, with human rights as our guide and compass.

Council of Europe

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New Social Compact

Demand for Investigation of COVID-19 gained momentum

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Human history is full of natural disasters like Earthquakes, Floods, Fires, Vacanos, Drought, Famine, Pandemic, etc. Some of them were really huge and have been damaged a lot. The outbreak of diseases was also very common in the past, like Spanish Flu, Tuberculosis, Cholera, Ebola, SARS, Middle-East-Virus, etc. However, the most damaging in recent history is COVID-19.

According to Worldometer, the latest data reveal that Coronavirus Cases has reached :

193,422,021, and death toll touched: 4,151,655. However, these are the official data provided by each individual country to Worldometer. The actual data is much more, as some countries have limited resources and could not test their population on a bigger scale, whereas few countries hide the actual data to save face, like India. Prime Minister Modi has mishandled the Pandemic and politicized it. His extremist approach toward minorities and political opponents has worsened the situation. He is afraid, if the public comes to know the actual disasters, he may lose political popularity and have to leave the office. Unofficial sources on groud estimate the actual figures are almost ten times higher. He has taken strict measures to hide the actual data and control media on reporting facts.

Whatever the actual data, even the official data shows a big disaster. Almost all nations became the victim of it and suffered heavily. The loss of human lives and the economic loss have made the whole World think seriously.

It is time to investigate the origin of COVID-19. There are many theories, and some are part of the blame game and politics, without proper investigations and reliable evidence. The World is so much polarized that it is very difficult to believe any side of the views and blames. Under this scenario, it is the World Health Organization (WHO) responsibility to conduct a transparent investigation and reach the source of COVID-19. It is believed that the whole World may trust WHO.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian demanded on Wednesday that the United States show transparency and conduct a thorough investigation into its Fort Detrick laboratory and other biological labs overseas over the origins of COVID-19 in response to appeals from people in China and around the World. By Wednesday afternoon, an open letter published on Saturday asking the World Health Organization to probe Fort Detrick had garnered nearly 5 million signatures from Chinese netizens.

“The soaring number reflects the Chinese people’s demands and anger at some people in the US who manipulate the origin-tracing issue for political reasons,” Zhao said at a regular news briefing in Beijing.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “cease and desist order” in July 2019 to halt research at Fort Detrick that involved dangerous organisms like the Ebola virus. The same month, a “respiratory outbreak” of unknown cause saw more than 60 residents in a Northern Virginia retirement community become ill. Later that year, Maryland, where Fort Detrick is based, witnessed a doubling of the number of residents who developed a respiratory illness related to vaping.

But the CDC never released information about the shutdown of the lab’s deadly germ research operations, citing “national security reasons”. “An investigation into Fort Detrick is long-overdue, but the US has not done it yet, so the mystery remains unsolved,” Zhao said, adding that was a question the US must answer regarding the tracing of the origins of COVID-19.

There are 630,000 of its citizens lost to the Pandemic. The US should take concrete measures to investigate the origins of the virus at home thoroughly, discover the reason for its inadequate response to the Pandemic, and punish those who should be held accountable. Especially in the initial days, the mishandling of the Pandemic by then-President Trump was a significant cause of the rapidly spreading of the virus, which must be addressed adequately. Washington remains silent whenever Fort Detrick is mentioned. It seeks to stigmatize and demonize China under the pretext of origin-tracing.

It appealed that the WHO may come forward and conduct through research and investigation in a professional, scientific, and transparent manner to satisfy the whole World.

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New Social Compact

How to eliminate Learning Poverty

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Children learn more and are more likely to stay in school if they are first taught in a language that they speak and understand. Yet, an estimated 37 percent of students in low- and middle-income countries are required to learn in a different language, putting them at a significant disadvantage throughout their school life and limiting their learning potential. According to a new World Bank report Loud and Clear: Effective Language of Instruction Policies for Learning, effective language of instruction (LoI) policies are central to reducing Learning Poverty and improving other learning outcomes, equity, and inclusion.

Instruction unfolds through language – written and spoken – and children learning to read and write is foundational to learning all other academic subjects.  The Loud and Clear report puts it simply: too many children are taught in a language they don’t understand, which is one of the most important reasons why many countries have very low learning levels.

Children most impacted by such policies and choices are often disadvantaged in other ways – they are in the bottom 40 percent of the socioeconomic scale and live in more remote areas.  They also lack the family resources to address the effects of ineffective language policies on their learning. This contributes to higher dropout rates, repetition rates, higher Learning Poverty, and lower learning overall.

“The devastating impacts of COVID-19 on learning is placing an entire generation at risk,” says Mamta Murthi, World Bank Vice President for Human Development. “Even before the pandemic, many education systems put their students at a disadvantage by requiring children to learn in languages they do not know well – and, in far too many cases, in languages they do not know at all. Teaching children in a language they understand is essential to recover and accelerate learning, improve human capital outcomes, and build back more effective and equitable education systems.”

The new LoI report notes that when children are first taught in a language that they speak and understand, they learn more, are better placed to learn other languages, are able to learn other subjects such as math and science, are more likely to stay in school, and enjoy a school experience appropriate to their culture and local circumstances. Moreover, this lays the strongest foundation for learning in a second language later on in school. As effective LoI policies improve learning and school progression, they reduce country costs per student and, thus, enables more efficient use of public funds to enhance more access and quality of education for all children.

“The language diversity in Sub-Saharan Africa is one of its main features – while the region has 5 official languages, there are 940 minority languages spoken in Western and Central Africa and more than 1,500 in Sub-Saharan Africa, which makes education challenges even more pronounced,” says Ousmane Diagana, World Bank Regional Vice President for Western and Central Africa. “By adopting better language-of-instruction policies, countries will enable children to have a much better start in school and get on the right path to build the human capital they need to sustain long-term productivity and growth of their economies.” 

The report explains that while pre-COVID-19, the world had made tremendous progress in getting children to school, the near-universal enrollment in primary education did not lead to near-universal learning. In fact, before the outbreak of the pandemic, 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries were living in Learning Poverty, that is, were unable to read and understand an age-appropriate text by age 10. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the figure was closer to 90 percent. Today, the unprecedented twin shocks of extended school closures and deep economic recession associated with the pandemic are threatening to make the crisis even more dire, with early estimates suggesting that Learning Poverty could rise to a record 63 percent. These poor learning outcomes are, in many cases, a reflection of inadequate language of instruction policies.

“The message is loud and clear.  Children learn best when taught in a language they understand, and this offers the best foundation for learning in a second language,” stressed Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education. “This deep and unjust learning crisis requires action. Investments in education systems around the world will not yield significant learning improvements if students do not understand the language in which they are taught. Substantial improvements in Learning Poverty are possible by teaching children in the language they speak at home.”

The new World Bank policy approach to language of instruction is guided by 5 principles:

1. Teach children in their first language starting with Early Childhood Education and Care services through at least the first six years of primary schooling.

2. Use a student’s first language for instruction in academic subjects beyond reading and writing.

3.  If students are to learn a second language in primary school, introduce it as a foreign language with an initial focus on oral language skills.

4. Continue first language instruction even after a second language becomes the principal language of instruction.

5. Continuously plan, develop, adapt, and improve the implementation of language of instruction policies, in line with country contexts and educational goals.

Of course, these language of instruction policies need to be well integrated within a larger package of policies to ensure alignment with the political commitment and the instructional coherence of the system.

This approach will guide the World Bank’s financing and advisory support for countries to provide high-quality early childhood and basic education to all their students. The World Bank is the largest source of external financing for education in developing countries – in fiscal year 2021, it broke another record and committed $5.5 billion of IBRD and IDA resources in new operations and, in addition, committed $0.8 billion of new grants with GPE financing, across a total of 60 new education projects in 45 countries.

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New Social Compact

World leaders must fully fund education in emergencies and protracted crises

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Many schools in Afghanistan have suffered the effects of long-term conflict. ©UNICEF/Marko Kokic

During June’s UN Security Council High-Level Open Debate on Children and Armed Conflict, leaders from across the world stood up to call for expanded support for education in emergencies to protect vulnerable children and youth enduring armed conflicts, climate change-related disasters, forced displacement and protracted crises.

In our collective race to leave no child behind and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in just nine short years, now is the time to translate these universal values and human rights into action.

The will is there. Nations across the globe, UN leaders and other key stakeholders stood up to address the horrific attacks on education happening on a daily basis and called for increased funding for organizations working to ensure crisis-affected children have access to safe, quality education.

Irish President Michael Higgins focused on education, protection and accountability in his address.

“I am sure that we can all agree that it is morally reprehensible that 1 in every 3 children living in countries affected by conflict or disaster is out of school. Schools should be protected, be a safe shelter and space for learning and development,” said Higgins. “Ireland prioritizes access to education in emergencies. We have committed to spend €250 million on global education by 2024. That is why we are launching the Girls Fund to support grassroots groups led by girls, advancing gender equality in their own communities.”

Nicolas de Rivière, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, highlighted support from France to Education Cannot Wait, as well as the importance of protection for children caught in emergencies.

“The socio-economic consequences of the pandemic and school closures put children at greater risk: inequalities are increasing in all regions of the world. Acts of domestic violence, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and school dropout have increased,” said de Rivière. “School closures increase recruitment by armed groups as well as child labor. Here, as everywhere, girls also have specific vulnerabilities. I am thinking in particular of the risk of early and forced marriage. For its part, France will continue to play an active role and promote the universal endorsement of the Paris Principles and Commitments. In the field, we support projects that guarantee access to education in emergency situations, notably the Education Cannot Wait Fund.”

Children under attack

The number of grave violations against children rose to 19,000 in 2020 according to the UN Secretary-General’s Report on Children in Armed Conflict, released in May 2021. To put this number in context, that’s over 50 girls and boys every day that are killed or maimed, recruited and used as soldiers, abducted, sexually violated, attacked in a school or hospitals, or denied their humanitarian access to things like food and water. 

The numbers are staggering. Last year, more than 8,400 children and youth were killed or maimed in ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Another 7,000 were recruited and used as fighters, mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Somalia and Syria. With COVID-19 straining budgets and humanitarian support for child protection, abductions rose by 90 per cent last year, while rape and other forms of sexual violence shot up 70 per cent.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres underscored the need to support the Safe Schools Declaration and the Children in Armed Conflict mandate in his address to the UN Security Council.

“We are also seeing schools and hospitals constantly attacked, looted, destroyed, or used for military purposes, with girls’ education and health facilities targeted disproportionately. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Children in Armed Conflict mandate, its continued relevance is sadly clear and it remains a proven tool for protecting the world’s children,” said Guterres. 

This is a vast human tragedy playing out across the globe. And despite efforts to support the Safe Schools Declaration, to re-imagine education during the COVID-19 pandemic and to align forces to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we seem to be backsliding on our commitments.

Just imagine being a mother and learning that your daughter will not be coming home from school today. That she was abducted, along with 150 other students at their school in Nigeria. Imagine seeing your son, Sabir, lose his leg after being shot by armed gunmen in South Sudan. Imagine being a Rohingya girl like Janet Ara, who hid in forests, forged rivers and is now seeking a better life and opportunity through an education in the refugee camps of Bangladesh.

Imagine the trauma and terror … now imagine the opportunity.

A wake-up call

If we can come together to give every girl and boy on the planet access to a quality education, we can build a more peaceful, secure, humane and prosperous world.

Before COVID-19 hit, we calculated that at least 75 million children and youth caught in crisis and emergencies were being denied their right to an education. But with schools closed and many children at risk of never returning to the classroom, that number has jumped to around 128 million. That’s more than the total population of the United Kingdom. That’s more than the total populations of Canada, Denmark and Norway combined.

Denying these children their right to a quality education perpetuates cycles of poverty, violence, displacement and chaos.

As the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, Education Cannot Wait (ECW) offers a new approach to break these negative cycles for good.

This means embracing a New Way of Working that brings in actors from across all sectors – national governments, donors, development, humanitarian response and education actors, national and local civil society, the private sector and more – to break down silos and work together to deliver whole-of-child solutions for whole-of-society problems.

In doing so we are bridging the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. Through ground-breaking collective action with partners across the globe, ECW has already launched multi-year resilience programmes and first emergency responses across more than 30 countries and crisis contexts and is on track to do more.

By doing so we can replace the cycle of poverty, violence, displacement and chaos with a cycle of education, empowerment, economic development, peace and new opportunities for future generations.

Delivering on our promise for universal, equitable education

The ECW model has proven to work. 

In just a few short years of operation, ECW has already provided 4.6 million crisis-affected girls and boys with access to a quality education. We’ve worked with national governments, donors, UN agencies and NGOs to reach 29.2 million girls and boys with our education in emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Bangladesh, girls like Janet Ara are returning to school, children with disabilities like Yasmina are accessing the support they need to learn, grow and thrive, and organizations like BRAC are receiving the support they need to build back better from the fires.

In Afghanistan, girls like Bibi Nahida are attending school for the first time, remote learning is helping children to continue their education during the pandemic, and female teachers are being recruited to teach biology, science and empower an entire generation of girls.

In Colombia and Ecuador, refugee children fleeing violence, hunger and poverty in Venezuela are being brought into schools, provided with laptops and cellular plans, and the psychosocial support they need to recover from the anxiety and stress of displacement.

Our call to action

An investment in education is an investment in the present and the future.

Recent analysis indicates that the likelihood of violence and conflict drops by 37% when girls and boys have equal access to education. Incomes go up by as much as 10% for each year of additional learning, while an estimated $15 to $30 trillion could be generated if every girl everywhere were able to complete 12 years of education.

We are making important headway with partners across the globe. The amount of humanitarian funding for education increased five times between 2015 and 2019 – and accounted for 5.1% of humanitarian funding in 2019.

Nevertheless, just 43.5% of humanitarian appeals for education were mobilized that same year.

That means girls like Bibi and Janet Ara may be pushed out of school, boys like Sabir might be recruited into armed groups. And children with disabilities like Yasmina will be pushed to the sidelines.

We have the will. Now it’s time to turn that will into action.

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