We talk a lot about the right to a quality education. We believe that every child has the right to go to school: to learn, to be given the opportunity to grow as an individual and to contribute to her community. Education is a human right, in much the same way as free speech or freedom from torture.
Indeed, this fact is not just wishful thinking. Education as a human right has been recognized in international human rights norms for almost 70 years. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) kick started this effort as the world looked for ways to safeguard and to protect individuals in the aftermath of the Second World War. The preamble to the declaration begins:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
And, as an important aspect of human dignity and equality, the Declaration promotes education with simple language, stating, in Article 26, that “Everyone has the right to an education.” Everyone. All children, no matter where they are born, no matter their gender or their race, have the right to go to school.
We know that the benefits from education are immense. Educating a child reaps massive dividends in terms of better health and nutrition, higher income earning potential, greater consciousness of the political process, more respect for the environment and, for girls, a higher standing in her community. An educated mother is more likely to ensure that her own children go to school, thus perpetrating a positive, self-reinforcing cycle. These things promote dignity and equality.
Quality education for every child is, in fact, so important that, over the years, human rights treaties have turned this objective norm into binding law.
The International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) built on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and strengthened the importance of education with the statement in Article 13 to “recognize the right of everyone to education.” Moreover, this legally binding treaty goes on to promote free and compulsory primary education, along with accessible secondary and tertiary schooling.
The Convention on the Elimination against all forms of Discrimination against Women (1980) speaks to the need for gender equality in education. While there has been progress in girls’ school enrollment, much remains to be done. Girls are still more likely to drop out early and they constitute more than half of the 263 million out-of-school children and adolescents.
Finally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the most widely ratified human rights treaty, provides a comprehensive treatment on the right to education:
- 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.
Clearly, the right to education is not mere wishful thinking. It is what every child deserves by the very fact of his humanity. It is a fundamental part of the global framework we have created to inform how we want to live.
However, there remains a lot of work to do. The map below shows the out-of-school rates by region, with the highest concentrations in sub-Saharan Africa where around 21% of children are not in school, followed closely by Oceania at 12% and Western Asia with 11% of children not in the classroom.
Let’s not ignore this human right. With so many children and adolescents still out of school, and with girls still at a disadvantage, we clearly have to work towards ensuring that EVERY child gets a quality education. It’s just the RIGHT thing to do.