Devli was born into inter-generational debt bondage in a stone quarry in India. After my organisation rescued and educated her, she became a champion of child rights and brought every child in her village to school. In 2008, as a representative in a high-profile event of world leaders at the UN General Assembly, Class of 2015, Devli, then 10, asked a simple question -- and stunned the audience -- "If I can send all 30 kids of my village to school, can't all of you as world leaders send all children to school?"
Millions of Devlis expected the World Education Forum (WEF) to answer this question in Incheon last week. This was the third most significant event on education after the first World Conference in Jomtien in 1990 and the second in Dakar in 2000.
Education has been enshrined as a fundamental right since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949. It took 40 years for governments to reach Jomtien where 'Education for All by 2000' was launched. Shamefully, there was negative progress between Jomtien and Dakar. During that decade (1990 to 2000), the number of out-of-school children rose from 85 million to an appalling 113 million.
However, this number has reduced globally to 58 million in the last 15 years. Illiteracy is down to 17% of the total population.
Do you know what has worked? Wherever the government gave people the Right to Free and Compulsory Education, substantiated with an adequate budget, it worked. Whenever school fees and other hidden costs were abolished, it worked. Wherever sufficient numbers of trained teachers were employed, it worked. Wherever the environment was made conducive to learning, it worked. Whenever communities were stimulated and empowered, it worked. Apart from these, the Global Partnership for Education (an international financial mechanism), the publication of theGlobal Monitoring Reports and the emergence of a strong civil society have contributed to this achievement.
Many governments and intergovernmental agencies have a reason to celebrate. But an activist like me who has worked for decades to liberate children from slavery and struggling for education cannot. To me, every single child matters.
Who are these 58 million children who have never seen a classroom? Where are they? They're all our children but we have failed to identify them. Many at this minute are enslaved as bonded labourers, being sold and brought like animals, victimised by insurgencies, wars and terrorism. Many are differently abled, HIV-AIDS orphans and socially and economically excluded.
WEF is a not just a platform for setting education agendas, but also a formidable force in shaping a sustainable society inclusive of these children.
A sustainable society stands on four pillars -- people, planet, prosperity and peace. Education is the seal that binds these pillars individually and jointly.
To achieve sustainability of people, we need education that fosters skill formation, employability, entrepreneurship and ethics. Such an education is the key to human rights for children as well as adults. Life-long learning must rank high in each nation's agenda.
The second pillar for a sustainable society -- the planet -- is fast crumbling under an escalating strain of urbanisation and depletion of natural resources, water and food. Education and scientific knowledge will give everyone a sense of responsibility to use resources judicially.
The third pillar is prosperity. While every person, community and nation strives towards prosperity, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. According to an Oxfam report, in 2014 1% of the rich of the world controlled 48% of the wealth. By 2016, they will control over 50%.
Secondly, ours is the age of the knowledge economy. Only equitable, quality education for all can ensure long-term economic growth and justice.
The fourth pillar, peace, is not something that is preached in holy places or negotiated on the tables of diplomacy. It is an instinctive quest of our lives, a divine right. In these times of civil unrest and constant threats, secular and scientific education is vital. Education enhances reasoning and accommodation of other's viewpoints, thereby promoting harmony.
Without an inclusive education, we're fighting a lost battle. The most marginalised need access to the same quality of education as the most privileged. Give each one an education with good content, qualified teachers and secure, gender-sensitive classrooms to create invigorated and productive youth.
Financing for education is an emergency. In failing to invest in education, we are failing our present and future.
Sadly, today less than 4% of global aid goes for education. We need US$22 billion to send every child to school. This equals 4.5 days of annual military expenditure. Do we need soldiers more than teachers, armies more than educated citizens?
I refuse to accept that the world is so poor that it cannot educate its children.
Education for All is wrought with challenges. Yet, it's not impossible. Through political will, adequate financing, ingenious partnerships between civil society, corporate and youth, we can achieve it. UN agencies must work more proactively, in coordination with and in cognizance of broader issues. Education for All can be a reality; a reality to be cherished by this very generation.