Now entering its third year, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to hold back some 405 million school children worldwide from a full return to the classroom, according to a new report released on Wednesday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
And as 23 countries have yet to fully re-open schools, many children are at risk of just dropping out.
“When children are not able to interact with their teachers and their peers directly, their learning suffers,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “When they are not able to interact with their teachers and peers at all, their learning loss may become permanent.
“This rising inequality in access to learning, means that education risks becoming the greatest divider, not the greatest equalizer. When the world fails to educate its children, we all suffer.”
2 trillion hours, gone
The report entitled, Are children really learning?, features country-level education data on the impact that COVID-19 school closures are having on children along with an updated analysis of the state of learning before the pandemic.
The study points out that 147 million children missed more than half of their in-class instruction over the past two years – amounting to two trillion hours of lost in-person education, globally.
Africa case study
In addition to data on learning loss, the report highlights emerging evidence that many children did not return to school when their classrooms reopened, including in Liberia, West Africa, where 43 per cent of public-school students remained out of the classroom after schools reopened in December 2020.
And between March 2020 and July 2021, the number of children out of school in South Africa, tripled from 250,000 to 750,000. Around one in 10 Ugandan students did not report back to school in January 2022 after two years of school closures.
Meanwhile in Malawi, the dropout rate among girls in secondary education increased by 48 per cent, between 2020 and 2021, and in Kenya, a survey of 4,000 adolescents aged 10-19 years found that 16 per cent of girls and eight per cent of boys did not return when schools reopened.
“When the world fails to educate its children, we all suffer,” said the senior UN official.
Vulnerable and marginalized
Out-of-school children are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized youth in society – least likely to read, write or do basic math.
Moreover, they are cut off from the school safety nets – putting them at even greater risk of exploitation and a lifetime of poverty and deprivation.
“Even before the pandemic, the most marginalized children were being left behind,” reminded Ms. Russell.
“As the pandemic enters its third year, we can’t afford to go back to ‘normal’. We need a new normal,” the UNICEF chief spelled out, “getting children into classrooms, assessing where they are in their learning, providing them with the intensive support they need to recover what they’ve missed, and ensuring that teachers have the training and learning resources they need.”
“The stakes are too high to do anything less”.
Although out-of-school children suffer the greatest loss, pre-pandemic data from 32 countries and territories highlighted an already desperately poor level of learning that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-triggered education crisis.
In the countries analysed, the current pace of learning is so slow that it would take seven years for most schoolchildren to learn foundational reading skills that should have been grasped in two years, and 11 years to learn foundational numeracy skills.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that schoolchildren have learned the basics at all, in many cases.
A quarter of eighth graders, who are around 14-years old, did not have foundational reading skills and more than half lacked the numeracy skills expected of seven-year-old in second grade, according to the data.
‘Immensely bleak’ future for Afghanistan unless massive human rights reversal
The international community must dramatically increase efforts to urge the de facto authorities in Afghanistan to adhere to basic human rights principles, a group of UN independent rights experts said on Friday.
“The future is immensely bleak for Afghans if more is not done by the international community to ensure the Taliban changes its modus operandi and complies with its human rights obligations,” they said in a statement.
The experts recalled that following the Taliban takeover last August, they had appealed for the international community to take “stringent actions” to protect Afghans from violations such as arbitrary detention, summary executions, internal displacement, and unlawful restrictions on their human rights.
Failure to deliver
“One year later, we reiterate this call,” they said. “Despite making numerous commitments to uphold human rights, the Taliban have not only failed to deliver on their promises, they have also reversed much of the progress made in the past two decades”.
Moreover, the humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan, which has already caused immeasurable harm to millions, shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it is predicted to worsen, they added, partly due to the interruption of international assistance and the freezing of Afghan assets abroad.
Attack on women and girls
The experts said the Taliban have committed a “plethora” of human rights violations, with the virtual erasure of women and girls from society, as well as their systematic oppression, being particularly egregious.
“Nowhere else in the world has there been as wide-spread, systematic and all-encompassing an attack on the rights of women and girls – every aspect of their lives is being restricted under the guise of morality and through the instrumentalization of religion. Discrimination and violence cannot be justified on any ground”.
Regrettably, there is little indication that the human rights situation is turning a corner, they said.
“Indeed, the daily reports of violence – including extra-judicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, heightened risks of exploitation faced by women and girls including for the purposes of child and forced marriage, and a breakdown in the rule of law – gives us no confidence that the Taliban has any intention of making good on its pledge to respect human rights.”
Citizens now have no means for redress as the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has been abolished, along with other independent oversight mechanism and institutions.
The administration of justice has also been compromised. The applicable law is unclear, and judges and other officials have been replaced, which has especially affected women.
Peace prospects dim
The experts pointed to other violations, such as the curtailing of press freedom, and the rise in attacks on religious and ethnic minorities, some of which were claimed by the ISIL-KP terrorist group. They also and highlighted how journalists, activists, academics and artists have either left the country, quit their work, or gone into hiding.
Furthermore, in the absence of an inclusive and representative government, prospects for long-lasting peace, reconciliation and stability will remain minimal.
“The de facto authorities seek international recognition and legitimacy. Regrettably, they continue to abuse almost all human rights standards while refusing to offer even a modicum of respect for ordinary Afghans, in particular women and girls,” said the experts.
Most recently, the Taliban appeared to have been harbouring the leader of Al Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed last week in a US drone strike, which the experts said also raises concerns of a violation of international law.
“Until it demonstrates significant steps towards respecting human rights, including by immediately reopening girls’ secondary schools and restoring their access to a quality education, they should not be on a path to recognition.”
Action by the authorities
In addition to honouring their international obligations, the experts have called for the Taliban to fully implement human rights standards, including respecting the rights of women and girls to education, employment and participation in public life.
The de facto authorities should immediately open all secondary schools for girls, and lift restrictions on women’s mobility, attire, employment and participation. The rights of minority communities must also be upheld.
The Taliban are also urged to “respect the general amnesty and immediately stop all reprisals against members of the former government’s security forces, other officials and civil society, especially human rights defenders, including women”.
Furthermore, human rights monitors and humanitarians should be allowed free, unhindered access throughout the country, including to sensitive locations such as detention facilities.
They also called for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, bar associations, and other relevant unions, to immediately be reinstated and allowed to operate freely and independently.
The experts also outlined steps the international community should take.
They include insuring civilians have equitable access to humanitarian aid, and supporting ongoing initiatives by Afghan women towards a strategy to promote the rights of women and girls, with clear benchmarks and expectations.
Countries are also urged to maintain and/or adopt sustained and robust humanitarian exemptions within sanctions regimes to ensure compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.
“Such measures should be fit for purpose, ensure that sanctions measures do not interfere with protected humanitarian action under international law, and function to remediate the current humanitarian crises and to prevent sanctions from continuing to exacerbate the humanitarian human rights crises being faced by the Afghan people,” they said.
Role of UN experts
The 20 experts who issued the statement were all appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.
They include Richard Bennett, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, and other Special Rapporteurs who monitor and report on issues such as the situation of human rights defenders worldwide.
These independent experts receive their mandates from the Council and operate in their individual capacity. They are neither UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.
IAEA: ‘Very alarming’ conditions at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant
The situation at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has deteriorated rapidly to the point of becoming “very alarming,” Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi warned the Security Council on Thursday afternoon.
“These military actions near such a large nuclear facility could lead to very serious consequences,” Mr. Grossi said at the meeting requested by Russia, which was marked by resounding calls to allow the Agency’s technical experts to visit the area amid mounting safety concerns.
IAEA has been in frequent contact with both Ukraine and Russia to ensure that it has the clearest picture possible of the evolving circumstances.
Europe’s largest nuclear plant shelled
Providing an overview, the IAEA chief said that on 5 August, the Zaporizhzhia plant – Europe’s largest – was subjected to shelling, which caused several explosions near the electrical switchboard and a power shutdown.
One reactor unit was disconnected from the electrical grid, triggering its emergency protection system and setting generators into operation to ensure power supply.
The senior UN official said that there was also shelling at a nitrogen oxygen station. While firefighters had extinguished the blaze, repairs must still be examined and evaluated.
No immediate threat
He said that the preliminary assessment of IAEA experts indicate that there is no immediate threat to nuclear safety as a result of the shelling or other military actions.
However, “this could change at any moment,” Mr. Grossi cautioned.
He recalled his recent address to the ongoing Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, where he outlined seven indispensable pillars that are critical for nuclear safety and security.
These included aspects dealing with the physical integrity of the plant, off-site power supply, cooling systems, and emergency preparedness measures.
“All these pillars have been compromised if not entirely violated at one point or another during this crisis,” flagged the IAEA chief.
“Any nuclear catastrophe would be unacceptable and thus preventing it should be our overarching goal”.
He asked both sides to cooperate with the UN atomic agency.
“This is a serious hour, a grave hour, and the IAEA must be allowed to conduct its mission in Zaporizhzhia as soon as possible”.
Presenting his case, the Russian delegate said Ukrainian forces used heavy artillery against Zaporizhzhia on 5 August, shelling the plant during a shift change to intimidate staff – their own citizens.
He upheld that on 6 August, those forces attacked with cluster munitions, and on 7 August, a power surge occurred, blaming.
The Russian Ambassador blamed Kyiv for refusing to sign a trilateral document issued by IAEA, stressing that Moscow strictly complies with the IAEA Director General’s seven principles.
In turn, Ukraine’s representative said that the withdrawal of Russian troops and return of the station to the legitimate control of Ukraine is the only way to remove the nuclear threat at Zaporizhzhia.
The Ukrainian Ambassador insisted on the need to send a mission to the site and has negotiated modalities with the Agency.
“Despite their public declarations, the occupiers have resorted to manipulations and unjustified conditions for the site visit,” he said.
Given the militarization of the site by Russian armed forces, such a mission must include qualified experts in military aspects.
Dozens missing after migrant boat sinks in Aegean Sea
Dozens of people are said to be missing after a boat of migrants and refugees sank in the Aegean Sea on Wednesday off the Greek island of Karpathos, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
“Very sad news from the Aegean: Dozens of people are missing after a boat sank off the island of Rhodes this morning (Wednesday),” UNHCR’s office in Greece said in a tweet.
News media reported that the vessel sank at dawn after setting sail from southern Türkiye yesterday, heading for Italy.
“A major search and rescue operation is underway,” said UNHCR.
According to news reports, the Greek Coast Guard said that an air and sea rescue operation saved 29 people, all men, from the waters between Rhodes and Crete.
The media also cited the Greek authorities in reporting that the rescued are from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.
The wrecked boat had sailed from Antalya, located on the southern coast of neighbouring Türkiye.
News media quoted a Greek Coast Guard press official who said that those rescued affirmed that the voyage began with 80 people on board – so up to 50 are still missing.
UNHCR confirmed the number of missing.
Since the beginning of the year, UNHCR has said that more than 60 people have died in the eastern Mediterranean.
Aegean Sea crossings between the Greek islands and Turkish coasts are often perilous – taking the lives of many migrants and refugees who travel on makeshift boats with hopes of arriving in Europe.
Since January, 64 people have died in the eastern Mediterranean, and 111 in 2021, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The last shipwreck in the Aegean Sea, which took place on 19 June, took the lives of eight people off the island of Mykonos, according to the IOM.
Every more deadly crossing
While the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe is lower than in 2015, the journeys have become increasingly more deadly.
Throughout last year, the UN counted 3,231 migrants and refugees dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea, and 945 people so far this year.
At the same time, 70,325 migrants did manage to reach Europe, of which 65,548 individual crossings were reported in the Mediterranean, according to UNHCR.
Since the beginning of the year, Italy received the largest number of arrivals – 43,740, followed by Spain – nearly 17,000, Greece – 7,261, and Cyprus – 2,268.
Last year there were 123,300 arrivals, and in 2020, 95,800. Previously, 123,700 crossed the Mediterranean in 2019, and 141,500 in 2018.
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