Today is Bloggers Unite for Human Rights Day, and I’ll be joining people worldwide to write about a pressing human rights issue. The topic I’ll be blogging on is the Right to Education

Before I begin, some food for thought:

  • More than 100 million children are out of school. (Source: UNFPA)
  • 46% of girls in the world’s poorest countries have no access to primary education (Source: ActionAid)
  • More than 1 in 4 adults cannot read or write: 2/3 are women. (Source: ActionAid)
  • Universal primary education would cost $10 billion per year. That’s half of what Americans spend on ice cream. (Source: ActionAid

Hopefully those stats piqued your interest, because now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty.

Article 28, Section 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 20, 1989, observes, 

1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:

(a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all;

(b) Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need;

(c) Make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means;

(d) Make educational and vocational information and guidance available and accessible to all children;

(e) Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.

It is a sad reality that the principles enshrined in this article are not yet realized in many areas of the world. There are still multiple barriers that impede access to education for children. Amnesty International highlights some of the most prevalent:

  • they are made to work,
  • they are recruited into armed forces,
  • their families do not have the means to pay for schooling,
  • discrimination and racism undermine their chance to receive an education,
  • they face violence as they pursue their education.

While I can’t speak to all of these problems, I do know a thing or two about school fees. While teaching in Ghana, a country that lacks free primary education, I saw many families struggle to make the payments (the school matron took money daily and recorded the fees in a ledger at each house. It was embarrassing and nerve wracking for most parents). When the payments came late or stopped coming, the child was kicked out of school. It was heart wrenching to stare at an empty desk, and know that a child was missing an education. It was somehow even worse when the parents had to decide which child or children to send because they were running out of funds. It is a situation that should never have to happen.  

If all of this seems depressing, there is some cause to hope. Within the past decade, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) put the dream of universal primary education back in the spotlight. As described on the United Nations Development Programme website, 

The MDGs represent a global partnership that has grown from the commitments and targets established at the world summits of the 1990s. Responding to the world’s main development challenges and to the calls of civil society, the MDGs promote poverty reduction, education, maternal health, gender equality, and aim at combating child mortality, AIDS and other diseases.

Set for the year 2015, the MDGs are an agreed set of goals that can be achieved if all actors work together and do their part. Poor countries have pledged to govern better, and invest in their people through health care and education. Rich countries have pledged to support them, through aid, debt relief, and fairer trade.

I don’t agree completely with the way that the MDGs are being implemented, but that’s a story for another time (for an interesting analysis of the goals from an insider at the UN, read Race Against Time by Stephen Lewis). In any event, the second MDG seeks to ensure that all children complete a full course of primary schooling. 

2008 marks the midway point on the journey to reach the MDGs, and the United Nations has released a report tracking progress. Their findings relate that while there has been a definite increase in primary school enrollment since the late 1990s, there is still a long way to go. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 30% of children are still absent from school.  

It’s my hope that there will be a continued focus on universal primary education, and that that concentration will extend into secondary studies. I also hope that as the ranks of children receiving an education swell, quality services are provided. I fear that in the rush to enroll every child, the standard of education offered may be diminished. Only time will tell.