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‘I miss school’: 800m children still not fully back in classes | Global development

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Across the world 800 million children are still not fully back in school, Unicef is warning, with many at risk of never returning to the classroom the longer closures go on. There are at least 90 countries where schools are either closed or offering a mix of remote and in-person learning.

The UN agency’s chief of education, Robert Jenkins, told the Guardian that the closures are part of “unimaginable” disruption to children’s education.

“I didn’t imagine the scale of the closures when schools shut last year, and I didn’t imagine it going on for so long. In all our scenario planning for disruption, this possibility was never raised,” he says.

“At the peak of the pandemic 1.6 billion children were not in school and here we are, a year later, and 800 million are still suffering partially or fully disrupted education.

“There are a lot of lessons that need to be drawn, and one is the impact that prolonged school closures have on children.”

A new Covid-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker from Unicef, the World Bank and Johns Hopkins University is monitoring closures across the world, analysing where children are learning at home or at school.

Humanitarian organisations say the closures have contributed to a range of increasing abuses and degradation of children’s rights across the world, from increasing use of child labour to a rise in child marriages, often in communities were children already struggled to access education.





Ambrose, 11, who works at a brick-making site with his mother in Uganda. Child labour has risen steeply during the pandemic.



Ambrose, 11, who works at a brick-making site with his mother in Uganda. Child labour has risen steeply during the pandemic. Photograph: Sofi Lundin/The Guardian

While it is too soon for large-scale evidence to emerge, across the world human rights groups are seeing children increasingly taking on work as school closures take their toll.

A Save the Children report out this week warns that in Lebanon children are being put into work by parents desperate for money. The charity fears many of the children will never return to school. Jennifer Moorehead, the charity’s Lebanon director, said: “We are already witnessing the tragic impact of this situation, with children working in supermarkets or in farms, and girls forced to get married.”

In Uganda, schools have been closed since March 2020, putting 15 million pupils out of education. Only certain classes with exams coming up have been allowed to return. The rest will return in a staggered way in the coming months, though thousands of girls will not, having become pregnant or been married off in the intervening period.





Ambrose with his mother outside their home in Uganda.



Ambrose with his mother outside their home in Uganda. ‘Making bricks is very hard,’ he says. Photograph: Sofi Lundin/The Guardian

In the Gulu district in the north of the country, Ambrose is making bricks under the burning sun for pennies, rather than attending classes. His plight is part of a wider rise in children working in the region. “Making bricks is very hard,” says the 11-year-old, who suffers from an aching back and rashes across his body.

The children here still have fun, sometimes finding time to play hide-and-seek or perform tricks with skipping ropes, but Ambrose does not know if he will ever go back to school. His mother worries about the physical impact this is having on her children.

“Bricks bring problems. Physically, you feel pain in your arms,” she says. But she can’t see any other way for them to survive.

Girls have been particularly hard hit by the closure of schools across the world. In countries such as Afghanistan teenage girls already had a high dropout rate with about 2.2 million girls not in school before the pandemic. Now, groups supporting them fear that an increase in early marriage will leave even those who want to continue their education unable to do so.





Drawings about coronavirus on the walls of Clarke junior school in Kampala last April. The drawings were made by pupils just before schools closed.



Drawings about coronavirus on the walls of Clarke junior school in Kampala last April. The drawings were made by pupils just before schools closed. Photograph: Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty

In Kabul, 15-year-old Khatema is recovering from the death of her baby after a brutal and damaging labour. Doctors believe it was linked to her young age.

“She is still in shock,” her mother, Marzia, 40, says. “She thinks the baby is being kept alive in a machine somewhere, so we are not forcing her [to accept the truth]. We will tell her when we take her home.”

Her father decided she had to be married when her school was shut in March last year because of the pandemic.

Khatema’s family immediately felt under pressure to find her a husband. Her father was worried that she would bring shame on the family by being at home without proper supervision. He decided to marry her to a farmer much older than her, and they rushed the ceremonies to ensure that Khatema would be moved to her husband’s house before the lockdowns started.

“I wanted her to finish her education, but no one listens to me,” her mother, Marzia, says.

“I loved going to school,” says Khatema. “I only had one more year left, so it felt really bad when I was asked to leave. I was good at it too. I even wanted to go to the university someday. No one asked me if I wanted to marry.”

Schools in Kabul have finally begun to open in the past week and Khatema hopes she might return – and avoid becoming one of the millions of pupils whose education ends permanently during the pandemic.





Afghan girls play in a primary school playground in Kabul in March. Schools have only recently begun reopening.



Afghan girls play in a primary school playground in Kabul in March. Schools have only recently begun reopening. Photograph: Rahmat Gul/AP


While remote learning has become a familiar concept during the pandemic, it is not a panacea, particularly in areas with poor connectivity, or where parents cannot afford to pay for internet access. For children with disabilities, remote learning can exacerbate those difficulties.

In Colombia 12-year-old Andrés joins classes on his parents’ mobile phone from his village near the Venezuelan border on the Catatumbo River. The area’s frequent lightning storms regularly knock the internet out of action.

“It’s not the same seeing your teacher on a screen,” he says. “The connection is always breaking up.”

Andrés has spastic paraplegia, which impairs his speech and makes it particularly difficult for him to participate, even when the screen does not freeze.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, 114 million children are still out of school, more than anywhere else in the world. Some public schools in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, have resumed in-person teaching. However, in rural regions such as Catatumbo, where Andrés lives, and where it is most needed, most remain closed.





Ana Milena Liberato helps her daughter Wendy Valeria, eight, with her homework near Bogotá, Colombia, in February. In Bogotá, four out of 10 children have no access to computers or the internet.



Ana Milena Liberato helps her daughter Wendy Valeria, eight, with her homework near Bogotá, Colombia, in February. In Bogotá, four out of 10 children have no access to computers or the internet. Photograph: Fernando Vergara/AP

Towns like his are hotspots for coca production – the base ingredient of cocaine – and the conflict between armed groups vying for control of it.

The number of children who have disappeared in the past year has surged as families have been pushed into poverty and have lost the teachers who watched over them, says Save the Children Colombia. Local groups are concerned that they have been recruited into armed groups or are working on coca plantations.

“A lot of kids have dropped out due to financial issues,” says Andrés’s mother, María. “Of his 40 classmates, around 25 still attend.”

Andrés hopes that one day he will be able to use complex mechanics and software to develop robotic limbs to help others with similar physical impairments to his own. “I like technology a lot,” he says.

“We always tell him that he may not be able to walk but that he can do amazing things with his brain,” María says. “And I say: ‘I might not be able give you these things but, if you study, one day you can give what we can’t give you to your children.’”

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[Ticker] US backs WHO plan for further Covid-origin investigation

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US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.

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‘Freudian Slip’: Biden Confuses Trump With Obama in New Gaffe

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The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.

US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.

“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”

Apparently, Biden briefly messed up the timeline, confusing his predecessor, Trump, with the 44th US president, Obama. Even his quick apology did not prevent social media users from picking up on his gaffe.

​Some suggested that since a Freudian slip occurs as an action inspired by an internal train of thought or unconscious wish, it was Biden “dreaming” about working with Trump rather than Obama.

​Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.

​Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components. 

Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.



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Countdown to the airstrike: the moment Israeli forces hit al-Jalaa tower, Gaza | Global development

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Countdown to destruction

During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.

Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?

In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.

Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021.
Clockwise from top left: Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021; a 13-storey residential block collapses in the Gaza Strip on 11 May 2021; an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, 14 May 2021; smoke rises following an Israeli strike on al-Shorouq tower in Gaza City, 12 May 2021.

The story of al-Jalaa tower

The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.

Children from al-Jalaa tower get ready to sleep in the hallway of the building for safety. Photo: Issam Mahdi

Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.

The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.

Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.

After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.

The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.


Timeline



The aftermath

As Jawad searches through the rubble he finds a single folder. It contains pictures of his wedding day.

Jawad Mahdi with a photograph of his wedding day, found amid the rubble of al-Jalaa tower. Photo: Mohammed Mahdi

Mohannad and Suzanne’s cats were never found. “I still don’t know their fate until today,” Mohannad says. “Every day from the moment it was destroyed I was going to the building listening for any sound.”

Suzanne says their lives will never be the same. “Everything you love is gone – it doesn’t matter about the cupboards and beds and things. There are things my kids had when they were babies, clothes that I had from when I was a child – these were memories. There was a box with all the things from my father, god rest his soul, his glasses and mobile and pictures. Where am I going to get things like that again?

“We have become people without memories or mementoes. What is a person without those? If you have no memories you feel like you never lived.”

Walid Hussein, the engineer who had returned with his family from years living in the US, has become like a ghost. He has not a single document to prove who he is. Sometimes he thinks about going back to the US for his children, but he has his elderly mother in Gaza to support. He doesn’t want to have to make a choice. He shares his hopes for a peaceful future in Gaza:

“This is all we are asking for, to live a peaceful life. Very peaceful life, it means security, it means no harm to anybody, it means don’t touch my kids – not because you have this technology and this kind of weapon you bomb all of us from the air.”

Main photo: NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock, Guardian composite; Satellite images ©2021 Maxar Tech/AFP/Getty Images, Google Earth

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