Journeys to School – against all the odds

For some children, school is just a stroll around the corner. For others, getting to school involves braving deserts, rivers, icy wastes or dangerous urban neighbourhoods.

Every day, in their quest to get an education, children all over the world embark on their journeys to school. They travel long distances on foot, or by bus, boat, bicycle, rickshaw, sled or subway. They brave deserts, mountains, rivers, snow and ice - like the children of the Iñupiat community, in Kivalina, Alaska (United States) who go to school and return in the dark in Arctic temperatures, braving frostbite. The warmly dressed children walk but the others have to run to keep warm. 

Six-year old Fabricio Oliveira saddles up his donkey every morning to ride with his cousins for over an hour across a desert landscape to the small village school in Extrema in the region of Sertão, Brazil. 

Kelly (aged 14) comes from Brazil, lives in Suriname and hitches a ride by canoe across the Maroni River each morning to school in Maripasoula, French Guiana. 

Six-year-old Elizabeth Atenio (photo) lives in in Kibera, East Africa’s largest slum near Nairobi, Kenya. Each day, dressed in a clean uniform, she sets out on the hazardous hour-long walk to school. At least 20 per cent of Elizabeth’s schoolmates have been raped, according to her teachers.  

Like eleven-year-old Amal from Libya, 9-year-old Sa’ade from Nigeria, and 6-year-old Renaldo from France, these children demonstrate an astounding resolve to go to school. They demonstrate that it is still possible to get an education despite the obstacles of poverty, gender inequality, social exclusion, urban insecurity, natural hazards or conflict.

Every picture tells a story

The above inspiring stories and more are illustrated in Journeys to School, a photographic exhibition opened on 4 March at the United Nations, New York, by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in the presence of UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon. The exhibition is a unique collaboration between UNESCO, VEOLIA TRANSDEV and Sipa Press who commissioned 18 photojournalists to document journeys to school around the world. A publication with the same photos is also available in English and French 

“I see each of these children as an inspiration for UNESCO’s work to promote quality Education for All,” says Irina Bokova. “These journeys are a powerful argument to place education at the top of the international development agenda in the years ahead.”

Putting education back on top of the global development agenda is precisely the aim of the UN Secretary General’s Global Education First Initiative. Although access to education has improved in recent years, the world’s poor and marginalized citizens are still excluded from education through poverty, ethnicity, location, gender and sometimes a combination of all these elements.

The photos in the exhibition and publication Journeys to School are a reminder of the imperative to ensure that children everywhere, including the hardest to reach, can go to school.  

After New York, the exhibition will travel for three years, until 2015. It arrives at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in April 2013, before it goes on its world tour.