World Interfaith Harmony Week: Sarah from the UK on becoming an education advocate

World Interfaith Harmony Week takes place over the first week of February to provide a platform for interfaith groups and other groups of goodwill to show the world what a powerful movement they are. This week allows for these groups to become aware of each other and to strengthen the movement by building ties and avoiding duplicating each other’s efforts. The initiative is based on the commandments Love of God and Love of the Neighbour and this has been extended to include “Love of the Good and Love of the Neighbour” to apply to anyone – regardless of religion. To mark this occasion, the Global Faiths Coalition for Education, in collaboration with Beydaar Society and Echo Change, will publish a series called Young Perspectives: Articles on Faith & Global Education – written by young advocates for education of different faiths.

The third article in this series is by Sarah Cunliffe, a 21-year-old from the United Kingdom, who is a Project Assistant with A World at School.

I’m Jewish. I care about education.

In the most recent United Nations My World survey, education topped the list of the issues people cared most about. Avaaz, a huge global petitioning platform, found in its 2015 survey of its 17 million members that education was the most important issue to them and the World Bank country opinion survey found that education is the number one priority for people around the world.

Meanwhile in the UK, my home country, in the face of austerity measures and spending cuts, politicians have iterated time and time again that spending on education will be ring-fenced. They argue, as do I, that education is crucial both on a macro and micro level.

As a politics and economics student, I have studied and experienced first-hand the enormous positive impact education can have. An educated workforce is almost always the key to a growing, sustainable economy, an accountable and stable government and a thriving civil society movement. On an individual level, education brings with it hope of a healthier family, higher wages and an escape from poverty and dependency. In some situations that occur far too often, it can also mean the difference between life and death.

These arguments for education were not new to me but my time volunteering in eastern Uganda during my student years drove home just how important education is in order to lead a happy, healthy life. As I acted out role-plays depicting the dangers of drinking unclean water and the importance of washing your hands, I tried to remember when it was that I learned these vital lessons and found I could not.

That’s because, as a fortunate Jew from North London, I had come from a family that both had the means to invest in my education and also valued education above all other things. Education has always been a priority in our household and the importance of learning was made clear to me from the very start.

I strongly believe that it was this emphasis on education and the doors it opens that laid the foundations for a career as a young advocate for education. It was this passion that led me to help organise the first ever UN Youth Takeover, Malala Day, where over 500 young people from around the world including Malala Yousafzai herself gathered at UN HQ to call for world leaders to make education a priority.

Sarah working with children in Uganda

In Judaism it is the parents’ duty to educate their children in the verse of the Torah so that they might understand the word of God and the values that come with that understanding. These core values are those of compassion, charity, truth and paying your taxes on time without any concealment. Some might be surprised at this last one but, when taken together, these values form the foundation of a strong, united and functioning society based on mutual respect and forgiveness.

Indeed, education can be seen as the cornerstone of Jewish life, as a child is not considered an adult until they have had their Bar or Bat Mitzvah – a key point in their lives that signifies the years of studying they have undertaken and the knowledge of Jewish life that they have gained. 

One of the key pillars of Jewish teaching is Tikkun Olam – repairing the world. When we speak of it, we talk of fixing the world and our responsibility to look after and protect it from social injustice. For me, the fact that over 58 million children are denied their basic right to an education cannot be seen as just. The arbitrary way in which where you were born can determine what life you lead and what opportunities are open to you is in dire need of change and it is Tikkun Olam, this call to social action, that has motivated me to defend every child’s right to an education. It is a key reason why I have chosen to put my learning to good use and join a network of young people all across the world who believe that no child should be denied the right to go to school.

The discrimination against girls is an aspect of global education that I care deeply about. Too often, a daughter’s education is sacrificed for her brother’s and she is destined to live a life of dependency as a result. An uneducated woman is likely to be far more at risk of domestic violence, sexual exploitation and maternal mortality. Her children are 50% more likely to die before the age of five than an educated mother’s child.

Whilst in Uganda, I met a number of women my age who had already had children, sometimes more than three of them. Hearing how they were forced to drop out of school when they fell pregnant, and the different choices they would have made had they known about contraception and sexual health, made me determined to use my knowledge to educate others.

I believe it is important to carry out interfaith work so that all religions unite on the crucial issue that is global education. Together we can make a difference.

Sarah studied philosophy, politics and economic – especially the economics of developing countries, international economics and the politics of Sub-Saharan Africa – at Oxford University.

Read more blogs about World Interfaith Harmony Week on our Global Faiths Coalition for Education page.