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Thoughts on educational access and opportunities in Eritrea

Class at Sewra Elementary School in Asmara (Photo: Finn Church Aid)

By Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion | Shabait

According to UNESCO, education is a fundamental human right and is essential for the exercise of all other human rights. Education promotes individual freedom and empowerment, and it is a critical factor for economic growth and general development. Around the world, millions of children and adults remain deprived of education, many as a result of poverty. Eritrea, a young, low-income country located in the fractious Horn of Africa region, has prioritized education as a key pillar within its national policy and broader framework for development, socio-economic growth, and poverty alleviation.

There is little doubt that the country faces challenges in many areas, including education. At the same time, a lot of progress has been achieved in a short period, which should not be simply dismissed. Problematically, as with most coverage of Eritrea in general, mainstream analyses and discussions of education in the country (across all levels) are often cursory, lacking in context, or plagued with various shortcomings.

I have previously written on education in the country, with the aim of providing some clarity and hoping to broaden the discussion. One of the most overlooked aspects about education in the country is the fact that access to education has been greatly expanded across the entire population. For example, consider total enrolments, which were approximately 50,000 in 1961, 248,000 in 1991, and last year were about 750,000. Moreover, literacy rates for youth in Eritrea are amongst the highest in Africa, and they are considerably higher than those for adults, suggesting that efforts to strengthen the supply and quality of basic education programmes have been successful. In fact, according to UNESCO, Eritrea has had one of the largest increases in youth literacy anywhere in the world over the past 50 years.

Having spent the last several years working in Eritrea, I have witnessed first-hand education in the country. I have been highly privileged to work with countless young, sharp, creative minds. Amongst the many eye-opening experiences I have had, one of the most important has been seeing the country’s expansion of education to all sectors of the population. Education is free, helping to ensure opportunities for all and promote equality. Visit any school, educational institution, or even any single class, and you will find students representing any one of the country’s various ethno-linguistic groups or hailing from one of its geographic regions. You will also quickly see that gender parity is greatly improved, and will come across students from the country’s various religious faith backgrounds. Furthermore, students will also be from a range of socio-economic class backgrounds, with all different categories being represented.

Recently, during a lively discussion with several colleagues, I learned that one of them – who is now a university lecturer and from one of the country’s smallest ethno-linguistic groups – was the first person in his family to attend university or college. His achievement was proudly celebrated by his family, and it also served to inspire his young neighbours and relatives to continue their own education. In fact, his younger brother is set to graduate next year. As we discussed his accomplishments, my colleague went on to narrate the story of a newly enrolled student – again from one of Eritrea’s smallest ethno-linguistic groups – who has recently become the first person in his entire town to attend university. The town, in honour of his great accomplishment, rewarded the young man by coming together to gift him gold and camels. What is even more exciting is that other young people in the town and surrounding regions have been greatly inspired and are now looking forward to furthering their education.

Stories such as these are not unique in Eritrea. Not only do they help to vividly illustrate how educational access and opportunities have been dramatically improved in the country, they also inspire me to continue to dedicate myself to Eritrea and support its ambitious, motivated youth.

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