July 18 is Nelson Mandela International Day, a celebration of Mandela’s work and that of his charitable organizations, who are calling followers to be “changemakers”. Education is a key part of this message for positive change. Going to school is about more than developing skills: it is also the path to peace, as encapsulated in Mandela’s famous maxim: “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
While president of South Africa, Mandela identified education as a pivotal tool for nation-building and reconciliation. Education continues to offer the potential for segregated communities to focus on common goals in South Africa and beyond. It is the key to combat inequality, reduce poverty, tackle preventable deadly diseases, and promote all Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Nelson Mandela was the first in his family to go to school – imagine if he had never had the chance! Our recent policy paper showed that 57 million children are out of school. Around half of these will probably never step foot in a classroom. Among these children are potential world leaders who will not have this chance because they are denied an education.
For sub-Saharan Africa, home to over half of the world’s out-of-school child, Mandela’s call for education is even closer to home. One in five primary school age children in the region have either never been to school or left before completing their primary education. Of the 30 million children out of school, 16 million are girls.
Education is a weapon, but it builds rather than destroys. We analysed education’s fundamental role in peace-building in our 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report, The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education, where we found that education makes societies less susceptible to violent conflict, especially if education systems are inclusive and foster mutual understanding.
While education is recognized as the most powerful weapon to achieve reconciliation, it is denied to 28.5 million children in conflict-affected countries. These children make up half of the children out of school – a larger proportion than two years ago. In addition, only 1.4% of humanitarian aid is allocated to education, leaving little hope there will be sufficient resources to turn the situation around by 2015, the deadline for reaching the Education for All goals and the MDGs.
Many years on, Mandela’s weapon of choice has been taken up by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban last year while returning from school. “Let us pick up our books and our pens,” said Malala in her recent impassioned address. “They are our most powerful weapons. One teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.” In advocating for Education for All, Malala and all those who support her cause are continuing Mandela’s greatest hope for humanity.