We must ensure no girls with disabilities are left behind

Gemma Hope, Director of Policy

Major global events are set to be hosted in the UK this year. Our Director of Policy, Gemma Hope tells us why these events will decide the educational chances of millions of girls, including girls with disabilities.

A teacher standing in front of a blackboard in front of a classroom of children, the teacher has her hand in the air

This year, the UN’s International Day of Education takes place in the shadow of a pandemic. Coronavirus has upended education as it has upended every other area of our lives. Worldwide, UNESCO found that 1.6 billion learners were affected by the fallout of coronavirus – around 90% of school-age children. These are truly staggering numbers. 

But this is no time for countries to turn their back on international development. Every issue that existed before coronavirus has intensified. The most neglected and marginalised groups have been the most disproportionately hit.

The work our charities, NGOs and government agencies do together to open up access to education worldwide cannot stop now. Realising the rights of every person with a disability will take many more years of joint effort. In fact, our work needs to accelerate if we are to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals  – one of which is sustainable education for all – by 2030.

Our inclusive education work

Leonard Cheshire has pioneered inclusive education models and has helped 32,000 children with disabilities to go to school in Africa and Asia. This involves supporting the children themselves, working with their parents, and challenging stigma. But our charity is only one part of the puzzle. We are still a long way from achieving true equality of access and ensuring every child with a disability can realise their full potential.

Beyond the pandemic, there are many other factors affecting girls’ education prospects. One of them is support from donor countries.

The merger of FCO and DfID

Since the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID), we have seen the UK’s contribution to foreign aid cut. Girls with disabilities worldwide are likely to be the first to feel the effects of the cuts. Projects to secure their education might not have the resources to reach them.

Meanwhile, the ministerial position responsible for a lot of the work on education overseas (the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development) has been vacant since Baroness Sugg left in November. We’re delighted that, at least, Helen Grant MP has been announced as the Special Envoy for Girl’s Education. This role is key to ensuring girls get at least 12 years of quality education. So it is encouraging to see the government preserve accountability in this area. We’re also looking forward to the publication of the new Girls’ Education Action Plan later this year, and we’re keen to support its implementation.

Investment is crucial

But the UK government shouldn’t stop there. The benefits of international development are tangible. But the right commitments and investments are crucial. A well-resourced international development programme strengthens economies and international ties. It lifts people out of poverty. It positions us as the ‘Global Britain’ the government wants the country to become. 

In 2021 alone, the UK is set to host the G7 Summit, the Global Partnership for Education Summit (GPE) and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). It is a year when our global role will be front and centre. We should not undercut this by neglecting our role in improving access to education for every child.

At the end of the day, commitments and investments turn into real life changes. They affect real people like Jesca.

Jesca's story

Jesca’s story perfectly illustrates what is at stake here. Jesca is a happy, outgoing sixteen-year-old from Northern Uganda. She is one of the thousands of young women in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia and elsewhere whom we are supporting to gain a quality education.

Jesca was, until very recently, on the verge of dropping out of education entirely due to her disability. Her only means of getting to school – on the back of her father’s bike – had disappeared when that bike was stolen. She was left isolated at home. Thanks to one of our programmes, she could get the right support to return to school. Already Jesca is flourishing and sociable. She is well on the way to realising her dreams and ambitions.

Interventions like this are complex. They require collaboration and funding. They require strong links with local government officials, other charities, and communities. A case like Jesca’s involved our charity, officials in her village and the local school. It involved expertise and support from the FCDO in the United Kingdom and Uganda, and funding from the UAE (via the Dubai Cares charity). 

Opportunity to promote inclusivity

But stories like Jesca’s add up to a bigger, brighter picture. The benefits of creating a more inclusive global economy are obvious. The UK’s commitment could make all the difference. This is a massive opportunity for the new, Global Britain to be a force for good and promote inclusivity in everything it does. 

This year the UK has the power to bring together countries to commit to supporting girls with disabilities at key global events. We hope the UK will use its voice to be a disability champion ahead of the 2022 Global Disability Summit. We also hope that the government brings foreign aid back to previous levels.