School Doors Closed for Millions: Political Will, Resources Needed to Guarantee Right to Education

Human Rights Watch, June 8, 2016

(London) – Discriminatory laws and policies and a lack of political will to carry out basic human rights obligations by countries around the globe are keeping millions of children and adolescents out of school, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Senior government education officials, global policymakers, and funding agencies will meet in Norway on June 13-16, 2016, to adopt measures to improve access to quality education globally.

The 89-page report, “The Education Deficit: Failures to Protect and Fulfill the Right to Education in Global Development Agendas,” says that governments around the world made a commitment two decades ago to remove barriers to education for their children. But Human Rights Watch found that discriminatory laws and practices, high fees, violence, and other factors keep children and adolescents out of school in many countries. The report is based on Human Rights Watch research in more than 40 countries, covering nearly two decades. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has reported that 124 million children and adolescents are out of school.

“It is unthinkable that in 2016, millions of children and adolescents across the globe are being denied their right to an education,” said Elin Martínez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Weak government monitoring and a lack of zero-discrimination policies often give education officials unchecked power to decide who can come through the school door and who is left out.”

All 196 UN member countries have adopted legal obligations toward all children in their territories. The widely ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child and various regional and other international treaties set out detailed requirements to protect the right to education. In September 2015, all governments agreed to work together to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all” by 2030, as part of the UN-endorsed Sustainable Development Goals, making access to secondary education a global target for the first time. The previous development goals, the Millennium Development Goals, sought to ensure full access to and completion of primary education, but they remain unmet.

Despite the obligation in many international treaties to remove primary school fees and associated costs, many countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa, charge fees that families cannot afford. Fees and associated costs at the secondary level stop millions of adolescents in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Nepal, for example, from finishing at least nine years of education.

“My last year of school was the first semester of the first year of junior high. I really wanted to continue studying, but I really didn’t have the money,” said Endah, who dropped out of school in Indonesia to work as a child domestic worker at age 15. “The school fee was 15,000 rupiah (US$1.10) per month. But what I really couldn’t afford was the ‘building fee’ and the uniform. It was 500,000 rupiah (US$37) …. Then each semester we had to buy books.”

School-related violence affects more than 246 million children, the UN agency for children, UNICEF, says. Corporal punishment in schools – a practice that amounts to torture and degrading treatment, and has a negative impact on children’s ability to learn – is lawful or remains widespread in countries including Tanzania, South Africa, and many US states.

Factors that drive girls out of school include widespread sexual abuse and violence by teachers and peers, abusive and meaningless virginity testing, mandatory pregnancy testing, and policies excluding pregnant girls from school. Unsanitary and inadequate conditions in schools, including a lack of facilities to manage menstruation with privacy and dignity, cause many adolescent girls, including girls with disabilities, to attend school irregularly or drop out. Child marriage both contributes to and results from lack of access to quality education in countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

Millions of children with disabilities in China and South Africa, and children from various ethnic, language, or religious groups in India, experience widespread discrimination by government officials when they try to register in schools. Once in school, many of these children are put in segregated classrooms where they receive low quality of education. Many children with disabilities drop out due to lack of trained teachers, lack of support, and denial of admission to further education. In Russia and Serbia, for example, children with disabilities are disproportionately institutionalized, often with access only to low-quality education, if any.

A growing number of children living in humanitarian crises and long-term conflicts are unable to claim their right to education, with schools either inaccessible or unsafe. Attacks against schools and takeover of schools for military purposes have kept millions of children in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Palestine, Ukraine, and Yemen out of school.

High- and middle-income countries also create barriers to education with discriminatory practices against minorities, refugees, migrants, and LGBT children.

All governments should ensure that primary education is truly free and compulsory, and that secondary education is free. Governments should eliminate discriminatory policies or regulations that allow schools to exclude children and adolescents, and ensure that schools accommodate the needs of girls, children with disabilities, children from minority groups, and LGBT children.

Governments should abolish corporal punishment by law and adopt stricter measures to ensure that children are safe from violence, abuse, and harassment in schools.

Donors – including multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education – and international agencies that help governments carry out their education plans should uphold human rights standards and not compromise on abuses that leave children and adolescents out of school.

The UN secretary-general and UNESCO should ensure that “champion countries” – which lead global initiatives in education – comply with their own human rights obligations and halt abuses in their own education systems.

“There should be no tolerance for failure where providing access to education for all the world’s children and adolescents is concerned,” Martínez said. “Children can’t wait another 15 years, or even another school year, for their governments to fully guarantee their right to prepare for their future.”