On the 24th of January 2022, we celebrate International Day of Education, “in celebration of the role of education for peace and development”. The right to education is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which calls for equitable and inclusive quality education. This call is echoed in the Sustainable Development Goal 4 which aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. Unfortunately, quality education is out of reach for millions of children around the world. It is estimated that by April 2020, close to 1.6 billion children and youth were out of school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, more than half of all children and adolescents worldwide do not meet the minimum proficiency standards in reading and mathematics.
While COVID-19 has impacted 91% of children across the world, numerous challenges have hindered the achievement of quality education. This includes the continued problem of malnutrition which affects nearly 811 million people in the world. Additionally, 22% of children under the age of 5 are stunted and 6.7% of children under the age of 5 suffer from wasting. The high levels of malnutrition affect children’s physical and mental capacity, which impacts development and productivity.
Food insecurity affects children’s health and development. Food insecure children are more likely to suffer from illnesses and diseases as a result of having a poor immune system. Malnourished children are also more likely to struggle with psychosocial functioning and acquiring basic motor and social skills. The consequences of food insecurity and malnutrition can be seen in the classroom, with malnourished children missing school more frequently than those who are food secure. It is also reported that children from food-insecure households are more likely to struggle with mathematics and literacy, repeat a grade and have reduced chances of graduating from school. Good nutrition is beneficial, not only for the child but for society. According to UNICEF, a healthy, well-nourished child has a better chance of overcoming life-threatening diseases, completing up to four or more grades in school, earn more wages when they are older. Based on the links between education and food insecurity, it is evident that achieving SDG 2: Zero Hunger is essential for the achievement of SDG 4.
The links between education and food security however extend beyond the importance of food security for education. Millions of children go to school hungry across developing nations, and many of these children are dependent on the meals they receive at school. School feeding schemes have become an essential part of the education system, not only in Africa but around the world. In South Africa, it is estimated that approximately 9 million school children rely on the National School Nutrition Programme, many of whom are considered poor. In Brazil, the government provides meals to approximately 40 million children. These students rely on the education system to support their daily energy and nutrient requirements.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, resulted in school closures across the world. Nearly 369 million children who rely on school meals needed to find other sources of food. In South Africa, it was reported that children had been foraging for wild plants to survive and the number of hungry households had doubled. In other areas, parents were seen begging for food or digging through dustbins to feed their children and children, who depended on school feeding programs, had to find alternative meals. According to the World Food Programme Executive Director, David Beasley, school feeding programmes are a game-changer for malnutrition and education. “That one meal a day is often the reason kids go to school in the first place. It’s also the reason they’ll come back after the lockdown. We need to get these programmes running again – even better than before – to stop COVID destroying the futures of millions of children”.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused severe losses in education, while also putting millions of children at greater risk of suffering long-term effects of food insecurity and malnutrition. It is important that while we celebrate International Day of Education, we also consider the role of the other SDGs in achieving quality education for all and integrate these into the steps we take to help recover and transform education for all. In the words of the late President Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Today, we strive to realise the right to education for all.