Muhammad Modu, 15, supports himself by collecting garbage in Maiduguri, Nigeria.
In a gated compound just off the main road that runs through the Mairi Garage Market in Maiduguri, Nigeria, 15-year-old Muhammad Modu is hard at work.
Wielding a twig barely a foot long, Muhammad sifts through the smouldering refuse of his middle class surroundings. With the sun pounding down on him and the smoke eating at his plastic flip-flops, his body feels like it’s on fire. But the hardest part, he says, is waiting for the trash to arrive. You never know if you’ll find much to make the wait worthwhile. After two to three days of this painstaking work, Muhammad gathers enough material to sell for N150–200, or US$0.75–$1.00.
Amidst the prizes – plastic bottles and scrap metal – he occasionally uncovers items that captivate him, even if he can’t sell them. His favourite finds are books. “I’m always impressed with photos of children in school or playing football”, he explains.
Muhammad used to be one of those children. That was until two years ago, when Boko Haram sacked his village and sent his family fleeing through the bush.
Today, Muhammad is one of the approximately 124 million out-of-school children and adolescents throughout the world.
He is also one of an estimated 75 million children whose education has been disrupted by crisis. Complex emergencies and protracted crises – sparked by violent conflict; natural disasters, including those linked to climate change; or epidemics – do not just temporarily interrupt children’s lives and schooling. They can close the doors on education for a lifetime.
Moving to the relative safety of Maiduguri hasn’t made things easy for Muhammad’s family. They lost everything when they fled. And although tuition is free at government-run schools, Muhammad can barely cover the cost of breakfast, as it is. Add to that the expense of a uniform, school supplies and transportation, and going to school becomes all but impossible.
Even before violent conflict forced Muhammad out of school, his country’s education system was not providing him the learning he needed. Educating a child is not just about getting her or him through school. Learning is what counts – and Muhammad, for all the time he did spend in school, can’t read the books he finds in the trash heap.
Worldwide, assessments show that far too many children are not gaining the knowledge and skills they need. Nearly 250 million children of primary school age – well over one third of the 650 million children in this age group – do not master basic literacy and numeracy, according to an estimate from 2013. For some 130 million of them, that’s despite attending school for at least four years.
Without these basics, children don’t get a fair chance in life. Quality education can open the doors to fulfilling, productive and remunerative work – the kind of jobs that can lift individuals out of poverty.
Tolu Olatunji, 11, does his homework in his bedroom in Abuja, Nigeria. Tolu wants to be an aeronautic engineer when he grows up.
But children do not all get equal opportunities to go to school, stay in school and learn what they need to know – and the disparities are not random. Data from around the world show that children’s chances of getting a quality education are lower if they come from poor families; if they live in remote rural areas; if they are girls; if they have a disability; if they belong to an ethnic or racial group that faces discrimination in their society; or if, like Muhammad, they live in an area affected by crisis. Where these factors overlap they often reinforce deprivations. For instance, the poorest rural girls in Pakistan on average benefit from half a year less education than the poorest urban girls, according to 2013 data.
In Nigeria, disparities start early and widen as children grow older.
According to 2013 data, less than a third of poor Nigerian children between 15 and 17 years of age had entered primary school at the correct time, though nearly all of the children from richer households had. At each level of education, greater proportions of poor children drop out.
And as they drop out, their chances of rising out of poverty and overcoming disadvantage diminish. They struggle to provide for themselves, trapped in low-skilled, poorly paid, and insecure employment. They cannot help but pass on to their own children the deprivation and disadvantage that kept them from realizing their potential. The cycle of inequity grinds on.
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In the Dalori camp for internally displaced persons, on the outskirts of Maiduguri, the usual trend has been turned on its head. Home to some 20,000 people, mostly from the Local Government Area of Bama, the camp is giving many of the Area’s poorest children a chance to go to school for the first time. Before coming here, many of the children, mostly from farming communities, were accustomed to spending their days working in the fields.
Yafati Sanda is the camp’s school principal. Every morning she makes her rounds, carting a stack of blue folders from class to class to check that all is in order: that the teachers are present, that attendance has been taken, that the children’s notebooks are up to date and their backpacks are clean.