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How Some Arab Children Are Shut Out of Classrooms

Editor’s note: This article is part of an editorial package that includes another article “New Report Details Where Children Are Excluded From Education.”

Across the Middle East and North Africa region, millions of children and young adults are excluded from education due to gender, religion, sexual orientation, poverty, ability and other factors, says Unesco’s newly released 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report: Inclusion: All Means All.

For children with disabilities, the common practice across the region is to place them in separate institutions. The Unesco report shows that three out of 22 Arab countries have laws on the books that segregate children with disabilities. Placing children with special needs into regular classrooms is generally—though not always—recognized as an educational best practice.

Meanwhile, researchers say there is a split between policies and practice. For example, in Lebanon, a 2000 law giving those with disabilities the right to an education is being ignored, the report found. In practice, school admission is at the discretion of school officials, who can and do turn disabled children away. The children’s alternative is specialized institutions run by private organizations funded by the Ministry of Social Affairs, which the Ministry of Education and Higher Education may not recognize, the report noted.

“The principals have a lot of power,” said Hana Addam El-Ghali, director of the Education and Youth Policy Research Program at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

Parents might not be aware of all the rights they have, El-Ghali says, and will just accept it when a principal says there is no room for their child or asks for paperwork that actually isn’t required as a prerequisite to admission.

“The principals tend to complain (about) the centralized system in Lebanon, but in reality, the principals have a strong say in how the schools are run,” she added. “They are there on the ground, and they will make the decision of how these policies are implemented.”

Most countries in the region combine mainstreaming, or putting children who have disabilities together with all children, with separate settings, usually for learners with severe disabilities, the report found. For example, in Iraq, a 2011 ministerial decree authorized the Ministry of Education to create special classes and schools for students who are “slow learners or have visual or hearing weakness.” As of 2019, there were 1,325 schools in Iraq with special classes for children with disabilities, 107 of them in rural areas.

“The authorities and the associations always promise me that they will help my children, but it’s all lies.”

Hossein  A Moroccan father of three children who have physical and learning impairments

Tales of Exclusion

Researchers found troubling examples of direct exclusion in Arab countries. For example, in Oman, a 2017 ministerial decree said that students with disabilities, especially visual impairments and other physical disabilities, could be accepted only in fully equipped schools. And in Morocco, where only 17 percent of schools are adapted for children with disabilities, some young people are completely shut out from classrooms. In Djibouti, a 2000 education law said that children with physical or mental disabilities could be exempt from compulsory education.

Hossein, a Moroccan father whose 7-year-old son and 14-year-old twin girls were all born with a spinal cord issue that has left them with physical and learning impairments, knows this situation only too well. He says he has repeatedly tried—and failed—to get his children some education in his remote hometown of M’Hamid, in southeastern Morocco.

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“The authorities and the associations always promise me that they will help my children, but it’s all lies,” he said. “No one helps me except some members of my family and my neighbors. Our big problem is the fake authorities and associations—they just want to use my children to get money.” The money goes in the officials’ pockets, he says, and not to educating his children.

Still, there are bright spots in the region, the report notes: In Saudi Arabia, contact with children with intellectual disabilities in an inclusive school resulted in positive student attitudes toward the disabled children.

Gender Matters

Across the region, some laws and policies permitting child marriage wind up excluding girls from school, the report notes. For example, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen don’t set a minimum age for marriage, while in Sudan, girls can marry at the age of 10. Once a girl is married, it’s rare she goes to school, as she is expected to stay home and take care of her husband.

“I would say, overall, the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa are very negative toward the LGBT community, and not very tolerant.”

Jamil Salmi  
An author and higher-education expert formerly with the World Bank

Also, some countries like Mauritania lack separate toilets for girls in schools, a key factor in attendance rates for girls who have begun menstruating. In Jordan, only 36 percent of schools provide effective sanitation facilities.

Still, some countries, like Morocco, have made strides in tackling exclusion based on gender: In the early 1990s, Morocco had one of the most uneven tertiary enrollment ratios by gender—three  women for every 10 men attended university. But by 2011, that ratio doubled and six years later, it has reached parity.

Sexual Orientation—A Taboo Topic

Meanwhile, for children or young adults who are gay, the situation is dire. The report found that, in the Arab region, 57 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth felt unsafe in school. That’s unsurprising, given that about 31 countries have laws and regulations restricting the right to freedom of expression about sexual orientation. While morality codes are common in the region, new laws also criminalize expressions of affirmation or support for homosexuality, the report said.

Jamil Salmi, an author and higher-education expert formerly with the World Bank, says there is no question that inclusion based on sexual orientation has lagged behind advances for females and those with disabilities.

“The general mood is not very positive toward gay people—the trend is not positive, compared to other countries or other regions like Latin America,” he said. “I would say, overall, the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa are very negative toward the LGBT community, and not very tolerant.”

Larbi Laghfiri contributed to this report from M’Hamid, Morocco.

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