Celebrated annually on January 24, International Day of Education highlights the transformative power of education and highlights the need to transform it for increased accessibility, inclusivity, and equity. For this year’s celebration, we asked 2023 Diana Award recipient Gunisha Aggarwal to discuss the power and potential of education to further the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
What are the most pertinent problems facing our world today? In a world fragmented by conflict, rife with religious and communal hatred and grappling with a climate change crisis, over 700 million people remain shackled by the chains of poverty. Education is the solution to tackle these challenges. It is an equaliser that can further Sustainable Development Goals by enabling peace, breaking the shackles of poverty, bridging inequalities and developing climate change resilience.
In the face of escalating conflicts in Gaza, Sudan and Ukraine, this year’s International Day of Education’s theme is “learning for lasting peace”; one of relevance and profound significance. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index 2023, there has been a 96% increase in conflict-related deaths from 2021 to 2022, which underscores the urgency of the theme. Recognising that violence often stems from ignorance, mistrust, hatred, and inequality, education emerges as a means to broker peace and foster generational prosperity. It empowers individuals to engage with diverse perspectives while fostering empathy and understanding. In an era of misinformation where it is easy to get sucked into echo chambers that parrot only one side of the story, education provides tools to discern facts from fiction.
Yet, despite the transformative power of education, UNESCO reports the unfortunate reality that access to quality education remains elusive for over 250 million young people. Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and educational activist, once said, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” The pandemic exacerbated this educational divide as educational institutions shifted to online modes of teaching and learning. Digital devices became an integral means of imparting education. This shift to online modes of education occurred at a time when many families were losing their source of livelihood, and buying digital devices to enable their children to access online education was a distant dream. Therefore, I spearheaded HELP Chennai, an initiative that collected old and new digital devices, serviced them and provided them to students in need.
HELP Chennai focussed on the twin objects of reducing e-waste by reusing old devices and accelerating the virtuous cycle of education. I launched a website and helpline number to connect donors with students in need. I partnered with five service centres across Chennai, India, to repair the devices. Through media interviews and as a UNICEF panellist, I created awareness about the growing digital divide and learning loss during the pandemic in India. We have helped over 600 students access online education so far. Through HELP Chennai, I am working towards bridging the digital divide, one device and one student at a time.
The pandemic underscored the imperative for India and other nations to evolve their education systems, making them more digitally resilient. The climate change crisis is another global crisis that is signalling the need for systematic changes in education systems around the world. Integrating climate change awareness and resilience into the education system is of paramount importance. The fact that the climate change crisis is often seen as an abstract long-term problem for the future makes it necessary to equip young people, the future generation, with the knowledge and skills required to tackle this crisis.
When I was working as a pro-bono consultant for the READ Foundation, I realised the importance of linking climate-smart education to other tangible goals. I proposed a whole school sustainability framework that aligned climate-smart education with other short-term goals, such as developing a better learning environment, mitigating natural disasters, empowering young women, increasing employability and integrating local communities.
On this International Day of Education, I implore you to commit to change, mobilise resources at hand, leverage social media as a tool for good and campaign for change in your community to accelerate the virtuous cycle of education and make its transformative power more accessible, inclusive, and equitable. By taking collective action, we can usher in a brighter, more equitable future through the transformative power of education.
ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE_
1_Commit to change
The first step to committing to change is being informed of issues. Read from a variety of sources and engage with different perspectives to understand the root causes of problems. Effect positive social impact through your thoughts, words, and actions by committing to change.
2_Mobilise resources at hand
3_Leverage social media as a tool for social good
Social media can be an effective platform for advocacy, amplifying underrepresented voices and creating awareness about the lack of access to quality education.
4_Campaign for change in your community
As a changemaker, inspire others in your community to take action. The ripple effects of your commitment to change can help establish a cycle of change in your community. Establish partnerships with local corporate and welfare organisations to foster collaborations that increase the impact of your actions and help as many people as possible.