Monday, 22 April 2013


The exhibition at UNESCO, showing Elizabeth,
in a photograph by Nichole Sobecki
Six-year-old Elizabeth lives in Kibera, a huge slum near the Kenyan capital Nairobi and the largest urban slum in Africa. Each day, dressed in her bright uniform, she walks for more than an hour across a harsh landscape to get to primary school. She is one of millions of children who must take a perilous path daily just to acquire an education.

Elizabeth and a number of other children are featured in a photo exhibition that’s currently being shown in Paris on the metal fencing around the headquarters of UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency. 

Titled “Journeys to School”, the exhibition premiered at the UN in New York and will travel around the world until 2015, providing a testament to "children’s courage and determination" in the face of educational obstacles, said UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova.

“These images capture the extraordinary resolve of boys and girls to overcome all challenges – whether these concern gender, disability, location, ethnicity, conflict or natural disasters,” she said.

Opening the exhibition in Paris on a rainy afternoon earlier this month, she commented that “"rain is the least difficult of all obstacles for these children on their way to school.”

Santiago on his way to school.
Imagine the journey that 14-year-old Santiago Muñoz does in New York, for instance. Each school day, he has to take two buses and two different trains, for a trek of two hours to school. His family lives in public housing in Far Rockaway, located at the southern end of the borough of Queens. But Santiago attends a much-admired public high school in the north Bronx, where he was accepted because of his good grades.

Across the globe, in a city of refugees on the border between Myanmar and Thailand, Wai Wai Htun lives in a slum with other migrant families from Myanmar. “She must walk 40 minutes to the stop for the makeshift rickshaw, without which it would be impossible to go to school,” according to the exhibition.

Lack of proper public transportation is just one of the obstacles that many children face in poor communities. UN officials say that other challenges include discrimination, religious “tensions”, crime, natural disasters (such as the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in Japan), disability, gender inequality and political conflict.

Schools in fact are often the first to suffer the consequences of armed conflict, and “mines and unexploded ordnance pose a continuing danger to children”, UNESCO says. The photographs by Olivier Jobard show 11 year-old Amal Al Torchani in Misrata, Libya, attending school in surroundings that still bear the marks of warfare.

Mexican photographer Rodrigo Cruz, who has won several awards for his human rights work, portrays schoolchildren of the Tarahumara Indian community who live in Copper Canyon, or Barranca del Cobre, in northwestern Mexico. For Esmeralda and Patricia (9 and 10 years old), walking is the only means of transportation. They cross canyons, climb steep slopes, traverse pine forests and pass beneath barbed wire fence to get to school, according to the exhibition.

Pedestrians stop to view the photos.
"These stories reveal the tremendous resilience of children, their mothers, their fathers, their teachers, volunteers and NGOs and a common determination to build a future made better through education,” said Miguel Ferro, the president of the photojournalism agency SIPA PRESS, which produced the exhibition in association with UNESCO and public transportation company Transdev.

The children who do make it to school by whatever means could be considered the lucky ones, as some 61 million children and 71 million adolescents do not attend school, according to figures from the UN.

The organization is calling on governments to strengthen their education policies as part of the Global Education First Initiative, a five-year project sponsored by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that aims to "renew and reinvigorate global commitments to education".

One of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals is to see all children attaining primary schooling by 2015. Although many countries have improved access to education in the past decade, officials say that much still needs to be done, especially for marginalized communities.

(The “Journeys to School” photographs will also appear in a book, proceeds from which will help to fund education, according to UNESCO. See sidebar.)