What does new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres need to deliver for children?

Child marriage, Children in conflicts, Early childhood development, Education in emergencies, Girls' education, Refugees and internally displaced people, Right to education, United Nations General Assembly

After a decade in charge of the UN Refugees Agency, the Portuguese former politician faces some daunting challenges if all children are to get access to education and early childhood development.

He already has a formidable record both in politics and in his work with refugees. But now Antonio Guterres faces some even more daunting challenges as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The former Prime Minister of Portugal and President of the European Council served as the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for 10 years until 2015.

Guterres has shown leadership in supporting children during the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. He was seen by many as the ideal person to take over yesterday from Ban Ki-moon.

Now – with competing issues including peace and climate change – he has to ensure children’s rights and education continue to be priorities on the global agenda.

To do that, the ninth UN Secretary-General has to do the following things:

  • Reduce the number of children out of school around the world – particularly in humanitarian emergencies and refugee crises
  • Help to promote education as the way to end child labour, trafficking and child marriage
  • Bring stability to the conflict zones in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and the Lake Chad Basin – which have resulted in millions of children being denied education
  • Ensure early childhood development is a priority, especially in developing countries

There are still 263 million children and youth who are deprived of an education. They include about 75 million out of school as a direct result of conflicts, disasters and health emergencies.

The signs are good that education in emergencies will be a priority for Guterres – and not just because of his track record at the UNHCR. 

Last year he told the World Education Forum that “we have a collective responsibility to ensure education plans take into account the needs of some the most vulnerable children and youth in the world – refugees, internally displaced children, stateless children and children whose right to education has been compromised by war and insecurity. 

“These children are the keys to a secure and sustainable future, and their education matters for us all.”

Guterres emphasised his feelings again in October at the UN Summit on Migrants and Refugees.

He said delivering education quickly in emergency situations is now being seen as important as giving food, water, shelter and protection.

He added that “education has been neglected in the priorities of fundraising and fund mobilisation in humanitarian aid”.

Like his predecessor Ban Ki-moon, Guterres is a champion of gender equality and for education as a way to end discrimination against girls – particularly in child marriage.

In 2014 he said: “Given that child marriage is a deeply-rooted practice, UNHCR must continue to work closely with communities, community leaders, and health and education actors to spread awareness about its risks and about the benefits of keeping children in school and delaying marriage until their adult years.”

He has appointed a woman – Nigerian environment minister Amina Mohammed – as his deputy at the UN.

Watch Antonio Guterres’ New Year message

The major conflicts are going to be a huge challenge. Only last week he called the war in Syria “a cancer on a global scale” – and in October he said ending the conflict was his top priority.

In a video message released yesterday to mark his first day in the job, Guterres said one question weighed heavily on his heart: “That is: how can we help the millions of people caught up in conflict, suffering massively in wars with no end in sight?”

The appointment of the new UN chief has been greeted enthusiastically by key figures in the education world.

Alice Albright, Chief Executive Officer of the Global Partnership for Education, wrote in a blog that his appointment “is encouraging news for global education, not least because he has been a vocal supporter for education, particularly in humanitarian emergencies”.

Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, also wrote in a blog last month: “Thanks to inspired leadership by former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres – who will now be the UN’s ninth Secretary-General – and current Commissioner Filippo Grandi, the UN Refugee Agency is now making education a high priority.”

New education goals, more youth voices and gender equality ambitions: 10 years of Ban Ki-moon as UN chief

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