What happens when kids in poverty get education

Part one in our two-part series: Why Education Matters [9 minute read]
  • By: Alyssa Esparaz
A boy smiles at the camera, wearing a backpack.

In this article:

  • The number of children globally that are currently not in school.
  • The effects of a lack of education—including child marriage and human trafficking.
  • What Compassion is doing to provide access to education for children and youth around the world.


Every fall, parents and caregivers across Canada prepare to send their kids back off to school. But this isn’t the reality any time of year for millions of parents and caregivers around the world.

Did you know that globally, one in five children between the ages of six and 17 are not attending school? That’s more than 262 million children (United Nations).

A girl sits at a desk listening to a lesson and writing in a notebook.

Part 1 in our Why Education Matters series focuses on how education helps children escape three of poverty’s most evil effects:

1. Child marriage

In West and South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, one in eight girls is married by the age of 15. A lack of education is a major contributor to child marriage. Uneducated girls are less aware of their rights and less confident to speak up for themselves and stop a marriage.

Thankfully, when Ratna, a 15-year-old in Bangladesh, was told by her parents that she was to be married, she had the confidence to go to the director of her local child development centre and speak up for herself. The centre’s staff quickly collaborated with local authorities to step into the situation. Within hours, Ratna had successfully stopped her own wedding, something many uneducated girls in her situation wouldn’t have been able to do.

Ratna holds a scarf up behind her head like a banner. She is looking up towards the sky.

Ratna left the experience more determined than ever to complete her education. Ratna says:

“If only a handful of educated individuals can bring such a control to all who were opposing me, I definitely want to be educated just like them and make a difference in my community.”

UNESCO estimates that there would be 14 per cent fewer child marriages in regions where it is most prevalent if all girls had primary education. This increases to 64 per cent fewer child marriages if all girls had secondary education.

2. Deaths during childbirth

Maternal death during childbirth is highest in regions where access to education is lowest. Uneducated mothers are less likely to seek out proper medical care during pregnancy and have a skilled attendant present during the birth.

Did you know that the presence of a midwife can make the difference between life and death? Many midwives connected to Compassion’s Survival programs around the world have story after story of lives they’ve saved.

“I have a passion for children’s lives. They are supposed to live. I believe God created all life.” —Ekkachai, a birth attendant in northern Thailand

Ekkachai gives medicine to a baby as the baby's mother holds the baby.

Ekkachai gives medicine to a baby while the mother looks on. Educated women are more likely to seek proper medical care, including a skilled birth attendant, which can save the life of both mother and baby.

UNSECO estimates that globally, there would be a 66 per cent reduction in mothers dying during childbirth if all women completed primary education.

3. Child trafficking

If a child isn’t in school, what are they doing? Many are forced into some sort of child labour. Some children are lured into sex slavery, while others find themselves working in rock quarries or fisheries for little to no pay, performing labour that they are far too young to do.

This was the case for Ebeneezer and his cousins in Ghana. It all started when his grandmother, Comfort, struggled to send him and his eight cousins to school. When a distant relative offered to take some of the boys to work on his fishing boat, Comfort knew they belonged in a classroom.

But her inability to pay for their education led her to make the impossible choice and send them away, thinking they would have food and a place to sleep. She believed they would be well cared for, but that of course wasn’t the case. Ebeneezer and his cousins were slaves on Ghana’s infamous Lake Volta for three years, until Comfort worked with local Compassion staff to rescue them.

A boy draped in fishing line looks at the camera.

A scene of life on Lake Volta, recreated willingly and with permission.

When children aren’t in school, they are vulnerable to falling into exploitative situations. It’s no surprise that the region with the most children not in school—Sub-Saharan Africa—is also the region with the highest prevalence of child labour (United Nations; UNICEF).

Our response: providing education to fight poverty’s evils

When children don’t go to school, the results can be life-altering, if not deadly. That’s why education is an important part of Compassion’s child development program.

Students work intently at their desks.

Compassion ensures that every child in our program completes primary school. In many countries where Compassion works, public education is free, but the cost of school supplies, uniforms and other fees act as the barrier for families living in poverty. That’s where Compassion is able to bridge the gap, providing life-changing access to primary school for children who otherwise wouldn’t have it.

Compassion Centre staff then work with youth to determine their individual plans for further education. Most opt to complete more formal education, and Compassion supports students by providing funds for tuition. As they reach even higher levels of education, Compassion also helps students find and apply for other local funding and scholarships. Compassion also supports secondary and post-secondary students with pre-university training, leadership development opportunities, tutoring and supplementary vocational skills workshops.

A personalized approach to higher education

A student writes on a green chalk board.

While most students do opt to continue their formal education, Compassion does not guarantee the completion of secondary education like we do for primary education. The main reason for this is because it isn’t always helpful.

Some youth choose not to move forward with formal education after primary school because they simply don’t thrive in formal education settings and know their career path won’t require it. These students instead opt for apprenticeships or vocational training, which Compassion provides both at the Compassion Centre and through other local resources.

Psst! Check out how Compassion supports students financially here.

Education matters

When we send our kids to school here in Canada, we know it’s important—often important enough to impact the trajectory of a child’s life. But we likely don’t often think of it as a matter of life and death. All around the world education is just that. It saves and transforms lives!

Next: In part two of our Why Education Matters series, we see what the future can hold when a child in poverty gets to go to school!


Want to learn more about how Compassion works to ensure children thrive in all areas of life?

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Field reporting by Piyamary Shinoda (Thailand), J. Sangma (Bangladesh), Richard Miller (Ghana) and Helen Manson (Ghana)