- For the right to free and universal education -
Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundations rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development. When the right to education is assured, the whole world gains. There is no instant solution to the violations of that right, but it begins with a simple proposition: that on the eve of the 21st century, there is no higher priority, no mission more important, than that of Education for All.
-Kofi A. Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations
The challenge to extend and deepen the right to education to every child calls for faithful action from the world's religious communities. More than 130 million school-age children, two-thirds of them girls, are growing up in the developing world deprived of the right to education. Approximately one-sixth of the worldfs population is illiterate, and the majority of that group are women (The State of the Worldfs Children, UNICEF, 1999). Illiteracy and lack of access to education deprive families of basic information and make them more vulnerable, diminish individuals' opportunities for learning, and exile communities to the margins of technical, economic and social development. There is evidence that countries that have invested in education have achieved a higher rate of economic progress and human development. The Jomtien Conference on Education for All in 1990 saw education as a vital element in combating poverty, empowering women, contributing to family planning, promoting human rights and democracy, and protecting the environment.
The world's commitment to education, expressed in at least 16 international agreements, conferences and treaties since 1948, has fostered substantial advances in schooling, and made people aware of their right to education. The expansion of the mass media and communications has created more demand for education in all socioeconomic segments of populations. But this global commitment and growing demand for education have also created enormous frustration among the poorest, especially during the past two decades, as public services have deteriorated, and with them the quality of public education. Economic stagnation, debt crises, and structural adjustment programs are direct causes of fiscal measures that exacerbate poverty, lead to a sense of hopelessness and despair, and create social unrest.
In some developed countries, questions are being raised about the form that education should take. Children growing up in societies that place too much stress on academic achievement face the pressures of severe competition from kindergarten onwards, in violation of their right to play, leisure and recreation. They are taught that personal success is everything, leaving no room for compassion, collaboration and solidarity with others. Individualism, competitiveness and violence are the marks of some school systems today in affluent societies, and we are left to wonder what kind of societies these school systems will engender.
Structural inequalities in societies are reflected in the way education is implemented, and in more than a few cases, school systems actually reinforce them. In some developed countries, there are profound disparities from one community to another in the quality of public education. There are educational systems that disproportionately favor institutions of higher education, such as universities and technical institutes, that are accessible only to those who could previously afford private primary and secondary schooling. Primary, public, free, and compulsory education that takes into consideration the needs of the most vulnerable children and those in especially difficult circumstances must be embraced as an ethical principle by all.
Armed conflict, cultural and religious tension, inner-city violence, domestic violence and social unrest are increasingly interrelated in todayfs global society. Such forms of violence demand: education that prepares children for a culture of mutual respect, peace and human rights for all; quality education that fosters social and personal development as well as self-esteem; and education that helps to eliminate discrimination based on gender and other differences. These violent conditions also demand special efforts from religious communities to educate children about other faiths in a spirit of respect and search for unity.
Governments need to rethink budget priorities, especially when the amounts allocated to defense exceed the amounts allocated to education and health services put together. The international community must renew its commitment to education in a more practical way. Organized civil society can play a key role in embracing and carrying out the goal of quality education for all. Religious groups, many of them deeply committed to education, need to refocus on this basic human priority.
Questions for Discussion
1. Based on our own human and religious experience, what needs to be done to implement the right to education for all?
2. How can the religious community develop interreligious initiatives to encourage collaboration with governments and nonreligious NGOs for the implementation of the right to education? How can we provide personnel, facilities and other resources for education? How can we advance the call of the Jomtien Conference to implement high-quality basic education for all?
3. What are the religious resources in our traditions that can be used to foster education for peace and human rights? Can we collaborate as a religious network to use education as a tool for peace? How?
4. How can we promote an education? formal and informal? that enables children to understand and respect each other's faiths?
5. What can we do to eliminate the gender gap and do justice to women and girls, implementing their right to education? How can we collaborate to ensure education for the most vulnerable segments of the population and for children in especially difficult circumstances?
6. How can we work with families to improve their children's education, aware that children who experience violence and poor nurturing by their families often perform below potential at school? What can we do to ensure that education fosters self-esteem as well as personal and social development?
7. How can we collaborate and network to support and implement the United Nations Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010)?