Senior Education Advisor, Save the Children Canada
Maria Paula Martinez
Executive Director, Save the Children Colombia
Save the Children is working to ensure gender-transformative and inclusive education is available to children worldwide.
Education is a fundamental right for every child — but in a turbulent and crisis-ridden world, access to education and children’s rights are often jeopardized. “New estimates show that 222 million school-aged children are affected by crises globally,” says Sarah Moorcroft, Senior Education Advisor with Save the Children. “There are approximately 78 million children out of school, and of those attending school, almost 120 million aren’t achieving minimum proficiency in reading or mathematics.” Save the Children is on a mission to change this. Its programming focuses on gender-transformative and inclusive education, particularly in regions where there are major crises related to conflict, climate change, and poverty — including Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, and Nigeria.
Education is critical. It saves lives and protects children. Out-of-school children are at greater risk of abuse and exploitation, such as sexual and gender-based violence (including child marriage), harmful work, and recruitment by armed groups. Education also promotes gender equality, and women and girls’ empowerment.
“Save the Children is dedicated to advancing the rights of children worldwide,” says Moorcroft. “We believe that every girl and boy has the right to survive and thrive. We do whatever it takes and go wherever the need to give children healthy starts in life, including the opportunity to learn and to be protected from harm. We work with community partners to ensure the unique needs of children are met and their voices are heard. Through the help of our dedicated donors and supporters, we work with children to realize their rights, transforming their lives and the future we share.”
For 100 years, Save the Children has been an established and trusted voice as the world’s leading independent organization for children. It’s committed to making a difference in the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children, wherever they are.
A combination of compounding crises
“What we have in Colombia right now is a combination of crises,” says Maria Paula Martinez, Executive Director of Save the Children Colombia. “We’ve been experiencing armed conflict between different groups fighting for control of the territory for 70 years, mainly because of drug trafficking. We also have the migration crisis. Over the past few years, at least seven million Venezuelans have left their country to escape violence, the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, and political turmoil, and 2.3 million of those people have come to Colombia — the majority of whom are children and youth. Lastly, our people are also being impacted by natural disasters and the effects of climate change.”
These crises, coupled with COVID restrictions in Colombia, have left many children and youth in unsafe situations and out of school. “Non-attendance rates increased by 13.7 per cent in 2022 and in rural areas this has reached up to 30 per cent,” says Moorcroft. “According to Colombia’s Ministry of Education, for every 100 children in the education system, only 44 graduate. This is unacceptable.”
Save the Children is helping address this with its Colombia-based Beyond Borders project. “Beyond Borders came about as part of the Canadian government’s $400 million commitment to women and girls’ education in fragile, conflict, and crisis situations,” says Moorcroft. “It’s a two-and-a-half-year, $11-million project funded in partnership with Global Affairs Canada that has reached more than 26,000 girls and boys affected by the conflict and crises on the Colombia-Venezuela border to support the realization of their right to quality, safe, and inclusive education.”
Beyond Borders focuses on three main pillars: increasing equitable access to education for children, improving the quality and gender-responsiveness of teaching and school provisions, and improving educational governance by strengthening policies, planning, and coordination to ensure the needs of crisis-affected children, particularly girls, are met. To accomplish this, Save the Children partners with numerous stakeholders, including local women’s organizations, schools, and government.
Bridging inequality gaps
“Investing in girls’ education, especially in a country like Colombia, contributes to bridging the inequality gaps,” says Martinez.
Beyond Borders supports children like Marcela*, who at age 13 was forced to leave Venezuela. Marcela and her family took refuge at the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Since arriving in Colombia, Marcela has faced discrimination, struggled in school, and during COVID, was unable to access virtual classes due to technology constraints. Through Beyond Borders, she became a member of a Girls’ Club, participated in a girl-led campaign “My Dreams Go With Me” for migrant girls to tell their stories, and secured a tablet to access virtual classes.
“Now I have the necessary tools to attend my classes,” says Marcela. “I have the talent to speak in public, and discovered that I want to continue being the voice of children. I’m learning so much with Beyond Borders, especially on the rights of girls and boys. We must demand our rights.”
Working together, Canadians can continue being champions of children’s education rights.
Marcela* 14 years old Norte de Santander, Colombia
Marcela is a 14-year-old migrant who lives in Norte de Santander and since 2020 has been linked to the Beyond Borders project in different child-led advocacy activities. Recently, Marcela presented to the Congress of the Republic in Bogotá, Colombia about the most pressing needs of children, particularly migrant children, in Colombia.
When Marcela saw herself on a giant poster, she couldn’t contain her excitement. She had travelled more than 637 kilometers from a rural area on the border between Colombia and Venezuela to the capital city to be a leader and represent the voices of migrant children and adolescents, as part of the commemoration of Congressional Children’s Day. It’s an experience she will never forget.
Marcela’s experiences and those of dozens of migrant and Colombian children and adolescents living in Arauca, La Guajira and Norte de Santander were part of the gallery ‘Building Our World’ supported by Save the Children and the Government of Canada. The gallery showcased stories about the barriers to education and xenophobia, but also stories about girls’ like Marcela’s resilience to evoke change, and the importance of guaranteeing protective spaces for all children to learn and play.
Marta* 14 years old
“I want to become a professional and have a stable job. I would like to help others because I think that every day is a constant struggle for the most vulnerable people: they deserve the same opportunities. Before participating in the Save the Children program, I was very shy, I didn’t really like to speak in public. Now I have been able to be in different spaces that have allowed me to recognize my abilities, meet more boys and girls who are doing things to transform their communities, and now I feel more sure of myself. Education is a child’s right and a commitment of the state and all public officials must be committed to ensuring that no boy, girl or adolescent stops studying.”
Yajaira* 12 years old
“We came (to Colombia) because of the crisis that was happening (in Venezuela) where there was no money for medicine, food or water….. The hardest thing for me has been leaving my family, my friends and my school. My dreams in Colombia are to study and make many friends, I want to be a doctor to help people who are sick. I tell the girls who have not been able to study not to lose faith, studying is important because you can learn things and grow as a person. I would like my school to have computers, new books and larger spaces where all my classmates can enjoy themselves during recess.”
*Names changed to protect children
9 Reasons to Invest in Girls’ Education in Colombia and around the world
Education is a fundamental right
In Colombia, education is in crisis. Poverty, ongoing conflict, and the Venezuelan migrant crisis are causing critical learning losses, especially for girls. Every child has the right to a safe, quality learning environment that meets their individual needs.
Bridge the gender gap
Girls are disproportionately left behind. They’re less likely to continue with secondary education or higher, and therefore less likely to start careers. Investing in girls’ education brings equality and justice.
Raise girls’ voices
Education builds girls’ skills and confidence to take charge and have more say over their own homes, careers, and lives. Educated girls can step up in their communities and realize their full leadership potential.
Colombia has high levels of domestic and community violence, including ongoing conflict with armed groups. Schools offer a safe place for children to receive or be referred to mental health and psychosocial support. Save the Children also works to break down harmful attitudes toward women and girls that perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence.
Prevent teenage pregnancy
Girls enrolled in school are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers. Save the Children works with schools and communities to promote adolescent girls’ knowledge of sexual and reproductive health. It also connects girls to key health services and contraceptives.
Reduce child and early forced marriage
Educated girls are less likely to be married before the age of 18. Teachers and schools can also provide support or referrals to services for girls who are at risk of child marriage.
Save the lives of children and mothers
Better-educated women are more likely to afford and secure health care for themselves and their young children, dramatically reducing maternal and infant mortality.
Break the cycle of poverty
When a girl stays in school, she increases her earning potential and opportunities for herself, her family, and her community. A one percentage point increase in the female education rate raises the average GDP for her country by 0.3 percentage points.
Promote peaceful communities
Venezuelan children can experience discrimination at school once they cross the border. From playgrounds to classrooms, Save the Children works in border communities to debunk negative stereotypes about migrants and promote social cohesion.