Show Humanity for Her: Education Cannot Wait for Girls in Conflicts and Disasters

By Yasmine Sherif, Director
Education Cannot Wait (ECW)

Conflicts and disasters are about destruction. Discrimination is about disempowerment. Combine the two and we get a glimpse of the raw reality affecting millions of girls. Standing amidst the ruins of their towns, communities and families, they are also shackled by marginalization, exclusion and lost opportunities because of their gender.

An estimated 39 million girls and adolescent girls in countries affected by armed conflict or natural disasters lack access to quality education. They represent a new generation prevented from acquiring skills to withstand the shocks of crisis, rebuilding their lives and contribute to reconstruction for their society. They also represent a segment of humanity deprived of the right to learn, grow and achieve their potential.

You find them in South Sudan, where 72 per cent  of primary-school aged girls (vs. 64 per cent of boys) do not attend primary school; in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya where only 38 per cent of primary school students are girls; in Niger where only 15 per cent of 15-24 year old girls and young women are literate vs. 35 per cent of young men; and, in Afghanistan where 70 per cent of the 3.5 million out of school children are girls, to mention a few illustrative examples of the staggering statistics in the 21st century.

As a result of the combined destruction and discrimination wrought upon them, girls in emergency settings are less likely to attend and complete school: girls living in conflict and crisis affected contexts are nearly 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than those living in a country where there is no crisis. Further, conflict widens education inequalities, decreasing adolescent girls’ ability to achieve social mobility and influence gains in livelihoods that are essential for sustainable development.

When people have lost everything, what do they have left? Their children. Boys tend to be the priority for education. Girls fall behind because it is harder for them to access education due to multiple barriers, such as insecurity, abject poverty, social norms, gender-based violence and other forms of discrimination. Even when the parents and the society want girls to attend school, girls in conflict situations are particularly at risk of being victims of violence. There are three times more attacks on girls’ schools than boys’ schools. Over half of the 30 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are fragile or conflict- affected. A girl in South Sudan today is more likely to die in childbirth than to finish high school.

On the other hand, it has been demonstrated that better educated women have better income and their children are better educated and in better health. Greater education equality between male and female students could decrease the likelihood of violent conflict by as much as 37 per cent. Thus, while the statistics clearly make the case for investing in girls’ education, it goes without saying that girls too are part of humanity and entitled to their human rights.

Advancing girls education in conflict situations presents multiple challenges. It requires access to data and analysis of the gender-disparities between girls and boys, targeted gender-action, continuity, as well as speed in delivery and access to seemingly inaccessible areas in a country that often lacks either the ability or the will to deliver quality education to girls. But these challenges can be overcome. To break through those barriers, humanitarian and development partners need to work together on the ground and across the humanitarian-development nexus, while adequate financial resources have to be made available to ensure continuity and quality.

Education Cannot Wait (ECW) – a first of its kind global fund dedicated to education in emergencies launched in 2016 –  places women and girls at the forefront of its support to conflict and disaster affected countries. A global partnership entity closely connected to implementing partners in crisis-affected countries, ECW aims to reach the “furthest behind”; i.e. an estimated 75 million children and youth whose education is disrupted due to conflicts and natural disasters. ECW’s funding modalities are geared to address the most urgent education needs when a new humanitarian crisis erupts or escalates and to ensure continuous support throughout the recovery phase.

Investments are already yielding results for girls affected by some of the worst conflicts and crises around the globe.  For example, in Afghanistan, two thirds of the total number of children reached so far by the fund’s programs are girls, while in one project, ECW’s implementing partners even succeeded in recruiting 75 per cent of women teachers.

April 2018 - Girls in a primary school supported by ECW in an internally displaced persons camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. © ECW/ G. Lang
April 2018 – Girls in a primary school supported by ECW in an internally displaced persons camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. © ECW/ G. Lang

In cooperation with United Nations Member states, including donors and host-governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and civil society, affected populations and other education stakeholders, ECW supports targeted and focussed gender action. This entails gender-specific data and analysis, gender-sensitive training, curricula, learning materials, and violence-free learning environments.

ECW funds multi-year programmes specifically designed to provide quality education to children and youth in emergencies and crisis settings, ensuring they are no longer ‘left behind’. Through education, children and youth have an opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills to thrive and contribute to post-crisis reconstruction and sustainable development. Adopting a pioneering approach, ECW brings both humanitarian and development stakeholders to work together, reducing the fragmentation and silos that have traditionally hampered the efficiency and sustainability of education aid in crises. This new way of working bridges relief and development, ensures the collective response is faster, reaches further and strengthens the chances for inclusion, gender-equality and quality in education for collective learning outcomes.

Indeed, efforts are being made across the globe to advance girls’ education crisis. The upcoming Canada-hosted G7 summit will focus specifically on girls’ education to ensure that the discussions during the summit translate into substantive investments for girls in crisis situations. All members of the G7 are committed to girls’ education (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States).

To ‘reach the furthest behind first’, we believe that the G7 should prioritize gender and focus on girls and young women as one of the most vulnerable groups in the humanitarian response and in the continuum between humanitarian and development aid. By supporting the new way of working and making adequate investments, G7 can significantly strengthen the odds for quality education for girls in crisis, open up opportunities for their growth and the sustainable development of their societies.

This is the 21st Century: the era of ending gender-inequality. We cannot allow the vicious circle of destruction and disempowerment to snare girls into new fetters, trapping the humanity of a new generation of girls. Their education cannot wait until we have achieved gender-equality elsewhere. The empowerment of nearly 40 million young girls and adolescent girls in armed conflict and natural disaster is a very real indicator of progress. The G7 summit is right on target. Let us not lose momentum and miss it, when we have an opportunity to hit it. Showing humanity to the girls in conflict and disasters only asks from us to make sure that our promises and commitments are solid and sincere enough to match their reality.


This year the Global Citizen Festival, featuring performances from Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Kendrick Lamar, Metallica and many more, is calling on world leaders to support education for children in crisis.

With growing conflicts and natural disasters, humanitarian crises are devastating communities from Nepal and Equator to Syria and South Sudan. Children are impacted the most, forced to flee their homes and seek safety elsewhere. Educating these children is the first step towards lifting them out of trauma and helping them to rebuild their future and their communities. Today, more than 75 million children around the world are in desperate need of our educational support.

The Global Citizen Festival, an annual live concert and advocacy event, is calling on world leaders to deliver education to the world’s most vulnerable children and youth. The Festival provides a platform to hold leaders accountable on commitments to solve the world’s biggest issues and support meaningful change in the lives of people living in extreme poverty worldwide. Tickets to the Festival cannot be bought, but are earned by those who take actions on our key issues in the lead up to the concert in New York on 24 September.

This year, the Festival’s fifth, sees the launch of the Festival’s education campaign Action Journey. The Action Journey will ask existing and new global citizens, fans and activists to earn tickets for the Festival by completing actions that help promote and ensure free, equitable and quality learning is available to all, particularly children and young adults affected by conflict and crisis.

Global Citizens are reaching out to world leaders from France, Switzerland, Canada, Kuwait, Finland, Germany and Denmark and asking them to commit to the Education Cannot Wait Fund, ensuring crisis-affected children and youth do not miss out on the skills they need to lead safe and prosperous lives.

Education Cannot Wait, is an innovative fund that aims to better coordinate support for, and drive investment in, education for children and youth affected by emergencies and protracted crises. It is the first global fund to prioritise education in humanitarian action and is groundbreaking in its collaborative approach to make sure every crisis-affected child and young person is in school and learning.

In addition Global Citizens will be asked to tell the Education Commission to prioritise children in emergencies, as part of its report on education financing, as well as to make sure young people have a say in education decision-making and policy.

Another action involves tweeting at Foreign Ministers from the Republic of Korea and Nigeria to support the Girls’ Education Action Statement, launched by the UK Department for International Development at a Global Citizen event in London on 7 July, to make sure that disadvantaged and marginalised girls and women are not left behind and can fulfill their potential by completing secondary school.

Global Citizens will also be asked to call and write to members of the US Congress to encourage them to increase funding to the Global Partnership for Education and to co-sponsor the Education for All Act, which promotes universal basic education for children around the world. Last, but not least, we will ask top US universities and some of the biggest corporations such as Microsoft and Western Union to fund education for children in need, including through Education Cannot Wait and other innovative solutions.

Since 2012, Global Citizens have taken nearly 6.3 million actions – from petitions and tweets, phone calls and emails, to attending rallies and volunteering – to pressure world leaders to enact major policy changes and commit significant resources, to global education, innovation and policy reform.

The actions culminate in the concert in Central Park, New York City, on 24 September. The event will be hosted by Chelsea Handler, Neil Patrick Harris, Deborra-Lee and Hugh Jackman, and this year’s line-up will also feature appearances from Chris Martin, Ellie Goulding and Usher amongst others.

The 2016 Festival will be supported by key partners such as MSNBC & Comcast NBC Universal, Chime for Change, Caterpillar, Citi, Clear Channel Outdoor, iHeart, Johnson & Johnson, Google’s Made with Code, YouTube, Live Nation, and NYC Parks.

The Education Action Journey will be a timely opportunity to make sure that education in emergencies is front of mind for world leaders ahead of the Migration Summit and President Obama’s Leader’s Summit on Refugees during the 2016 UN General Assembly.

Take action now: go to

Madge Thomas
Deputy Director, Global Policy and Advocacy
Global Citizen