In a region where poverty, human rights abuses, gender inequality, and conflict impact millions of lives, education can bring hope for a better future. But as the world marks the International Day of Education (January 24), nearly 15 million children in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are not in school,1 with girls especially affected.
Girls in the region are 1.5 times more likely to be out of secondary school, owing to a range of cultural, religious, and socio-economic factors. One in five girls is married before the age of 18.2
The situation for girls in Afghanistan is particularly dire. Soon after the Taliban retook control of the country in 2021, they banned girls from attending secondary school. A global outcry was not enough to make them overturn this decision, even after a public promise by the Taliban to do so. A comment from a SAT-7 viewer reveals the desperate nature of conditions in the country: “Please pray for us, that we might be saved from the Taliban who have closed schools and universities for Afghan students. Schools have been transformed into military camps and institutions.”
Girls in Iran have suffered a new danger at school in recent times, in a reported wave of chemical gas attacks at girls’ schools. More than 300 separate attacks have taken place in more than 100 girls’ schools across the country, seemingly a coordinated punishment for girls involved in anti-government protests over the last two years.3 Some 13,000 schoolgirls have received medical care for poisoning since the attacks began in November 2022.
An Iranian woman named Mariam recently contacted our Persian channel, SAT-7 PARS, about the attacks. “Please pray for us,” she began. “There have been poisonings at schools in our little province, and there is mayhem. No one is allowing their children to go to school anymore because they are not safe… We take refuge in the Lord Jesus who is all-sufficient. There is so much injustice, fear, and sadness in the hearts of the people. We live in fear. We don’t know if there is any hope for tomorrow.”
These examples follow a wider pattern of inequality in the region. The MENA region trails all other regions in the world in terms of progress on gender parity. Seven out of 10 of the lowest-ranked countries are from the MENA region, with Yemen last, closely followed by Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.4
SAT-7 programs such as Today Not Tomorrow are challenging accepted cultural and religious practices that perpetuate inequalities, as well as raising the aspirations of girls and women. The program features the stories of Middle Eastern women who are challenging the status quo. Lamia Sayed is one of them; she tells how she broke with the normal practice in her community and allowed her daughter to continue her studies. She explains how an encounter with God on Mount Sinai made her realize that the creator of such beauty could not be one who oppresses women.
Another huge factor impacting access to education in the MENA is war and conflict. Tragically, recent statistics indicate that one in three children in the region lives in a conflict zone.5
In Yemen, a country ravaged by civil war for the better part of a decade, at least one in four schools has been rendered unusable, and around 2 million children are out of school.6 Further north, the same number of children are out of school in Syria as a result of the civil war there.7
The conflict in the Holy Land has pushed a huge number of children there out of education. By mid-December 2023, over 350 school buildings in Gaza had been damaged – more than 70% of the area’s education infrastructure – and over 600,000 children are known to be missing out on their education.8
Conflict is one of the main factors in the MENA that drive people to flee their homes, and globally, refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugees.9 There are over 15 million displaced and stateless people in the MENA,10 and Türkiye, Lebanon, and Jordan are particularly feeling the strain of hosting large refugee populations.
Türkiye, for example, hosts 1.7 million registered Syrian child refugees,11 and although all Syrian children are entitled to an education in Türkiye, Syrian children are around 26% less likely to be enrolled in school than Turkish children.12
While there are clearly numerous barriers to education in the MENA, it is important to note that the region has seen a significant rise in the overall literacy rate for adults in the past half-century, from 44% to 80%.13
SAT-7 is passionate about supporting girls, refugees, conflict-zone children, and others who lack access to quality education. Informal learning segments feature in many of the network’s children’s programs, such as Mini City on SAT-7 TÜRK and Golpand on SAT-7 PARS. Hundreds of episodes of My School, which feature primary-level teaching in core subjects, are available for free on SAT-7’s streaming platform, SAT-7 PLUS, and are shown on the SAT-7 KIDS satellite TV channel.
“We thank you for the wonderful effort and the excellent teaching,” said Katie, a teenager from Egypt, about My School. “It is easy, simple, and comprehensive in all aspects. We cannot tell you how much we benefit from the teaching in all subjects. Many, many thanks to you.”
The program has had a long-term impact on many viewers. “Since I was a little girl, I have followed you and learned from you,” an Arabic girl named Petra shared with us. “I have benefited a lot from this wonderful channel.”
*Names of viewers have been changed for security.
2 Education | UNICEF Middle East and North Africa
3 Iran: Millions of schoolgirls at risk of poisoning – Amnesty International
4 World Economic Forum, “Global Gender Gap Report”, 2020
5 New Figures: 468 Million children live in conflict zones (savethechildren.org.uk)
6 Education | UNICEF Yemen
7 Education | UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic
8 War’s toll on education in Gaza casts shadow over children’s future | Israel-Gaza war | The Guardian
9 Missing Out: Refugee Education in Crisis | UNHCR
10 Middle East and North Africa | UNHCR
11 Inclusion of Syrian refugee children into the national education system (Turkey) | UNICEF
12 School integration of Syrian refugee children in Turkey – ScienceDirect
13 Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above) – Middle East & North Africa | Data (worldbank.org)