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Education in emergencies: The gender implications

Advocacy Brief

Jackie Kirk

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)


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Introduction to Education in Emergencies

‘Education in emergencies’ refers to a broad range of educational activities – formal and non-formal – which are life-saving and life-sustaining and, therefore, critical for children, youth and their families in times of crisis. Crisis situations include natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and floods, as well as man-made conflicts. Emergency education programmes are designed according to the particular context of the environment and may be short-term, temporary solutions such as ‘tent schools’ for when school buildings are destroyed, damaged or inaccessible. However, education in emergencies also refers to longer-term education policy and programme development in chronic crisis situations. These include situations where refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are uprooted for many years and have long-term education needs, or where the state is chronically ‘fragile’ and unable or unwilling to provide quality education services for the population. In addition, education in emergencies covers education activities in post-emergency recovery, reconstruction and peace-building periods. Education activities evolve over time and generally span different phases of the crisis – acute emergency, recovery and reconstruction. Even short-term, improvised education interventions should be planned with an awareness of the longer-term education needs of the community and of the vision and policies of relevant authorities.

No clear dividing line exists between ‘emergency’ and ‘regular’ education, especially in chronic crisis and reconstruction contexts, and much accepted ‘good practice’ applies equally across both. However, education in emergencies does have particular features. Over recent years, awareness of the importance of education in emergencies has grown, and education is now included in international disaster relief funding appeals alongside other ‘traditional’ humanitarian sectors such as water and sanitation, health and shelter. Education programmes are then supported by international and national NGOs and UN agencies. This is particularly necessary when the state education system is not fully functioning. Where teachers have been killed, injured, have fled, or are otherwise occupied with fighting or with their own survival and that of their families, ‘emergency teachers’ may need to be recruited from within the local population. Condensed, rapid training programmes for new, inexperienced teachers are a common feature of emergency education programmes. The programme content has to be adapted according to specific, local needs, but the protection and promotion of students’ psychosocial well-being1 underpins most interventions. In times of crisis, the restoration of formal and non-formal education programmes as early as possible is a significant step towards restoring normalcy and providing reassuring routine, continuity and hope for the future of both the children and their communities.

Quality, relevant education is a right of all children. Children in crisis situations often need new and different knowledge, skills and learning experiences in order to survive and to thrive in changed circumstances. They are particularly vulnerable, facing increased risks of physical and emotional harm. Education content to counter these risks may include, for example, land mine education, health and nutrition education, and other life skills such as HIV/AIDS prevention. Refugees or internally displaced children may need to learn in a different language than that of the local, host population and to follow a curriculum that will allow them to transfer back into the education system when they return home. However, for children and youth displaced over a long period, learning the language of the host community may be important for ensuring future income-generating possibilities, as well as for building bridges between communities. Emergency education programmes often contain elements of disaster prevention, preparedness and mitigation, such as lessons for students about how to protect themselves in the event of an earthquake or what to do if rebel forces come to their village. In conflict-affected contexts, the inclusion of peace education and conflict resolution in education programmes for children and youth should support peace processes at different levels and contribute towards more peaceful futures. In this respect, careful attention to revising traditional curriculum content is required, especially in potentially-sensitive subjects such as history and social science. This is particularly the case when notions of ethnic, religious or geographical superiority have been emphasized within the curriculum and may actually fuel tensions or conflict between different groups within the population.

A number of international policy developments have helped to shape an evolving field of practice known as ‘education in emergencies’, which is now integrated into education policy frameworks of relevant UN agencies (primarily UNICEF, UNHCR and UNESCO) and multilateral and bilateral donors. Education in emergencies is also gaining ground as a new field for study and research. Graзa Machel’s 1996 report to the UN on children affected by conflict and the follow-up report of 2000 were significant in raising awareness of the extent to which children suffer in times of war. These reports also highlighted the importance of education and the fact that many children affected by conflict – most notably girls – do not have access to schooling. The World Education Forum, held in Dakar, Senegal in April 2000, also recognized that the Education for All (EFA) targets will not be met unless education systems in conflict-and disaster-affected contexts are given specific attention. ‘Fragile states’ – many of which are crisis or post-conflict states – are now a focus for policy development of donors and UN and other agencies. Aware that reaching the Millennium Development Goals – especially those relating to education – in fragile states is highly challenging, donors are developing policy guidelines for alternative forms and approaches to service delivery in such countries.

  1. Psychosocial well-being refers to the close connection between psychological aspects of experience (thoughts, emotions and behaviour) and wider social experiences (relationships, traditions and culture). It is broader than concepts such as ‘mental health’, which run the risk of ignoring aspects of the social context, and ensures that the importance of family and community are recognized (PSWG, 2003).

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