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Learning to break the cycle of poverty

by Cesar Chelala

Lack of education, particularly among children, continues to be one of the main challenges to the well-being and quality of life of children worldwide, concludes a recent Oxfam International report titled, “Education Now: Break the Cycle of Poverty.” According to this report, there are currently 125 million children who never attend school, and 150 million children who start school but drop out before they can read or write. This situation also affects adults in the developing world, one in four of whom is illiterate. Unless some wide-ranging measures are implemented soon, this could translate into a crisis situation that could have serious effects on the population, particularly those living in developing countries.

Lack of access to education is particularly serious in sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for almost one-third of the total out-of-school population. If present trends continue, it will account for three-quarters of that total population in 2015. It is estimated that by that year, an additional 9 million children will be without an education, thus making 54 million African children lacking even the most elementary education. In 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, there has been a decline in children’s enrollment rates. That sub-Saharan Africa has also been particularly hit by the AIDS epidemic underscores the need to increase resources to combat illiteracy as a basic strategy against this disease.

Lack of education in parents, particularly for mothers, can have serious consequences on the health status of their children. The more educated the mother, the greater the chances of having healthy children. It has been shown that each additional year spent by mothers in primary schools reduces the children’s risk of premature death by almost 10 percent.

Education in mothers can have such dramatic effects on their children’s health because they have better access to information about health and nutrition, and they are more likely to take their sick children for treatment. Because they are also more self-confident, they tend to be more vocal in their demands for adequate health services for their children. Education in women is also associated with smaller family size and a better health status among mothers.

In urban India, the mortality rate among the children of uneducated women is more than double than those of children of educated women. Also in India, mothers with four or more years of education are twice as likely to have ante-natal care and three times more likely to have their children immunized against childhood diseases than mothers with no education. It has been shown that every 1,000 girls educated in Pakistan can prevent up to 60 infant deaths. In the Philippines, primary education among mothers reduces the risks of child mortality by half, and secondary education reduces that risk by a factor of three.

There are still, however, notable inequalities in global access to education. While some children in Africa or in some Asian countries can expect to go to school for two or three years, a five-year-old child from Europe or the United States can expect to have an average 17 years of formal education. These inequalities are dramatic not only among different countries but within countries as well.

In addition, there are differences between girls and boys, since girls represent two-thirds of children who don’t go to school. Although many countries have made significant advances toward the elimination of this gap it persists, particularly among developing countries. According to the Oxfam report, “In many schools in the developing world, the treatment of girls is tantamount to a system of apartheid.”

There are several strategies that, even if they don’t eliminate this problem, may increase children’s access to education in a substantial way. At the national level, governments have to clearly establish education as a priority, and provide necessary resources and support. At the international level, both governments and international lending institutions have to implement debt-reduction policies for those countries willing to provide increased resources for basic education. International lending institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have taken some preliminary steps toward the modification of their own structural adjustment policies that for many years have exerted a negative influence in the developing countries’ social agendas. These policies have to be given a renewed emphasis to make sure that education for all ceases to be a chimera and becomes a reality. Nothing more, and nothing less, than our children’s future is at stake.