The Life-Saving Power of Education – An ECOSOC HAS side event on learning, mental health and the wellbeing of crisis-affected and displaced children and youth 

Investing in education can make a lasting difference in the health, empowerment and employment opportunities of the world´s most vulnerable children and youth, especially those caught in emergencies or experiencing forced displacement. 

On Monday, 19 June 2023, the Geneva Global Hub for Education in Emergencies and UNICEF co-sponsored, with the Permanent Missions of Canada, Colombia, Niger and Switzerland to the United Nations in Geneva, a side event to the 2023 ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment (HAS) on “The life-saving power of education – Learning, mental health and the wellbeing of crisis-affected and displaced children and youth”. 

Children and youth living in crisis contexts are feeling the brunt of the mutually reinforcing global food, nutrition, climate and learning crises. They are also at elevated risk of encountering difficulties related to their mental health, as a complexity of variables impact a child’s mental health, exacerbating existing mental health conditions, reducing education participation, and worsening educational outcomes. 

Facing these challenges, it must be recognized that investing in education has enormous potential to improve the life trajectories of the world’s most vulnerable children and youth, especially those caught in emergencies or experiencing forced displacement. 

The session was opened by Hazel De Wet, Deputy Director, Office of Emergency Programmes, UNICEF. 

“We know that schools and other learning environments, especially in emergency settings are uniquely positioned to offer learners a comprehensive set of services that respond to their essential needs that are critical to improving learning, mental health, nutrition, climate resilience and well-being,” she said. 

Xavier Castellanos Mosquera, Under Secretary General for National Society Development and Operations Coordination of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, then spoke about education in emergencies for climate action. 

“When we talk about climate change, and the effects of climate change, we know that we need more humanitarian action,” he said. “For us, education in emergencies is central to how children and young adults can increase their awareness of the environmental challenges they face, and how we can, through either formal or non-formal education, change behaviours and attitudes.” 

Following a remote statement from Mujtaba Alshawi, a Youth Representative from Iraq, Dr. Angie Jackson-Morris (Associate Director, Center for Global Noncommunicable Diseases, RTI International) presented a UNICEF-led study showing the profound and long-lasting impacts on children and youth’s learning and life trajectories from cumulative exposure to adversity and life-threatening experiences, combined with limited or no access to essential services including mental health care and education. 

“Mental health conditions are more prevalent among children and adolescents who are exposed to emergency events,” she said. “Interventions to address these critical unmet needs should be incorporated as part of emergency relief efforts, because the cost of inaction, of failing to address the mental health needs of children and adolescents across the 66 countries, we analysed, with medium to very high risk for humanitarian emergencies, totalled US$203 billion (in 2022).” 

Caelin Briggs, Senior Humanitarian policy and protection advisor at NRC, discussed Education in emergencies and Child Protection. 

“It really does take a comprehensive approach to make sure children and youth have access to education,” she said. “And I think it is going to be important, in the full range of contexts from rapid deterioration through to protracted crises.” 

Closing remarks were delivered by Farida Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, who highlighted that: “when education gets disrupted, that has disastrous consequences for everybody – not just for individual learners, but for communities and societies as a whole.” She also re-emphasised the need for holistic approaches connecting the human rights, education in emergencies, health, food and nutrition, and mental health communities to seek common solutions. 

This side event was convened on the margins of the 2023 ECOSOC HAS, taking place from 19 to 23 June 2023 in Geneva, Switzerland. It builds on this year’s HAS theme: “Strengthening humanitarian assistance at a time of unprecedented global humanitarian needs: driving transformation and solutions to address the urgent challenges of rising food insecurity and the risk of famine, protection risks and climate change.” 

The HAS provides a key opportunity for Member States, the United Nations system, development actors, the private sector and other humanitarian partners to discuss current and emerging humanitarian challenges and priority themes, and share experiences and lessons learned.