Protecting the right to education: What you should know

Jan 20, 2023
Every year, millions of children and youth gather in classrooms across the world each week to learn everything from math and science to literature and art. School is a commonplace experience for most children in North America—and the right to education is a globally recognized human right in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. From equipping youth with essential life skills to giving children a safe place to learn, education greatly improves quality of life for communities overall.

But in other parts of the world, the right to education is something 244 million children and youth don’t get to enjoy, according to UNESCO’s 2022 data.

Despite the legal recognition of the right to education, there are still many challenges that keep children and youth in vulnerable communities from being in school, including conflict and gender inequality.
This article will explain what the right to education is, why it exists and what’s being done to protect children’s right to education.
  1. What is the right to have an education?
  2. Why do we need the right to education?
  3. What barriers do children face to getting education?
  4. What is the right to education in Canada?
  5. How does World Vision protect the right to education?
  6. How can I help protect children’s right to education?

1. What is the right to have an education?

The right to education is defined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the right for all people to receive free education in the elementary and fundamental stages.

For signed member states, education in the country must promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups. The declaration also states that elementary education will be compulsory and that parents have the right to choose the kind of education their children will receive.

To be a fully realized right, education in all its forms and at all levels must have the following qualities, according to the UN:
  • Available: education is free, with sufficient infrastructure and trained teachers to deliver education.
  • Accessible: the education system is non-discriminatory for all, and measures are taken to include the most marginalized.
  • Acceptable: the content being taught in schools is relevant, non-discriminatory and culturally appropriate; schools and teachers are safe and professional.
  • Adaptable: education changes to address the changing needs of society and challenges existing inequalities; education is adapted to locally specific contexts.
In the Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed member states commit to respecting, protecting and fulfilling the right to education for every child. This means member states commit to doing the following:
  • Making elementary education compulsory and available free to all
  • Encouraging different forms of secondary education and making technical and vocational education accessible to all
  • Making higher education (university and college-level) accessible to all
  • Approaching education with the view of committing to eliminating ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world
Most recently, 184 countries signed onto the 2015 Incheon Declaration: a framework for action to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4—by 2030, all children will have access to inclusive and quality education.

2. Why do we need the right to education?

We need the right to education because providing quality education helps both individuals and communities progress overall. The right to education is protected by a variety of internationally ratified documents because of how much value education provides.

When children get quality education, whole societies win.

 

The UN recognizes that education contributes to “the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In other words, having access to education helps us progress mentally, emotionally and socially; understand our basic human rights and freedoms; and gain skills and qualifications to progress socioeconomically.

Here are a few statistics that demonstrate the power of education:

3. What barriers do children face to getting education?

While there are a variety of reasons why children across the world cannot get a quality education, these are the biggest global barriers to education.

Poverty
Poverty and education are unequivocally connected. In impoverished regions around the world, families must choose between sending their children to school or providing basic needs. Living in poverty forces families to make devastating decisions, and children pay the biggest price. Children may be forced into child marriage or dangerous, degrading labour to help their families make ends meet.

A young Latina girl sits in a classroom, writing in a notebook.
In Honduras, these children are at a lesser risk of being forced into child labour in the country’s coffee industry, thanks to a new Child Care and Development Centre, where they can play and learn safely. Photo: Andre Guardiola

Conflict
In countries where violent conflict is rampant, education is under attack—literally. In 2020 and 2021, there were over 3,000 attacks on schools, according to a report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA). Children are forced out of school to flee the violence and sometimes even get recruited to become child soldiers.

Four young Arab boys stand outside a tent, with their mother standing behind them.This family of four boys and their mother are Syrian refugees living at a refugee settlement in Mosul, Iraq. Unable to go to school, Azzam (second from the left) has been forced to gather scrap metal to sell and help support his family. Photo: Shayan Nuradeen

Gender inequality
Gender bias plays a big role in preventing girls from getting an education. According to UNESCO estimates, school completion rates for girls continues to lag behind boys across all levels of education, with only 21 per cent of young women completing secondary education versus 26 per cent for young men. Lack of access to facilities and supplies for menstrual hygiene also hinders many girls from attending school, due to social taboos surrounding menstruation. Reinforced harmful gender stereotypes cause families to prioritize boys’ education over girls, even forcing girls to drop out of school and into child marriage.

Christina sits in her classroom beside other classmates, smiling brightly.After dropping out of school as a teenager due to getting pregnant, Christina made the bold decision to return to the classroom at the age of 26, determined to get better opportunities for her and her children. Photo: Charles Kabena

Access to clean water
When low-income communities struggle to find clean water, children often pay the price with their education. Women and children walk an average of six kilometres per day to access water. For children, this journey means missing school or coming late to class due the exhaustion from the journey or sickness from consuming unclean water.

4. What is the right to education in Canada?

While Canada doesn’t have an official federal ministry of education, the federal government has an obligation to provide access to education for all children, as a signee for international commitments.

This range of international agreements, agendas and conventions includes specific commitments to provide quality public education, including the 2015 Incheon Declaration, the 1991 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Children sit in a classroom, listening to the teacher standing at the front.While most Canadian classrooms are well-stocked with supplies and books, some communities still face barriers to quality education, such as systemic discrimination and lack of funding. Photo: Kenny Eliason

However, the infrastructure and delivery of education is under provincial and territorial jurisdiction. This means the right to education is contained in provincial/territorial education acts, as well as First Nations, Métis and Inuit governance. The range of choice and quality of education depends on how different regions run their education system.

Most regions of Canada have well-developed public education systems, but there are still people groups who do not experience education equally, particularly Indigenous peoples, racialized groups and people with disabilities. Here are a few statistics that demonstrate this reality:
  • Federal funding for First Nations schools is highly disproportionate to provincial schools, capped at a mere two per cent increase per year since 1996.
  • In 2017, a York University report found that Black Canadian students in Toronto were often directed away from advanced academic programs in secondary schools more often than other racialized groups.
  • The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability found that 42 per cent of youth with a disability have experienced bullying at school—a number that increases to 62 per cent for those with a more severe disability.
In Canada, fully realizing the right to education means understanding the barriers different marginalized groups face to receiving quality education. This means working with these communities to understand their experiences in the different education systems across the country and finding ways to remove barriers.

5. How does World Vision protect the right to education?

Education in emergencies
World Vision works with partners all over the world to call for global action from governments to support the education needs of 222 million children and young people affected by conflict and crisis. We also create Child-Friendly Spaces for children experiencing disasters to be able to process their emotions and get light education, even during a crisis.

Child Development Centres
From 2020 to 2021, World Vision established and improved over 480 early childhood development centres and trained over 1,100 parents and caregivers, as well as 220 early childhood development teachers, to better support young children’s learning and development.

A young Lebanese boy grins at the camera, sitting in his classroom and holding a pencil.Five-year-old Mhammad is one of many children in Lebanon excited for their first time in the classroom, starting a lifetime of learning through early childhood education programs run by World Vision Lebanon. Photo: Maria Bou Chaaya

Literacy and leadership programs
Alongside providing supplementary teacher training and school materials to schools all over the world, World Vision also supports education by establishing peer leadership groups and after-school literacy clubs and activities. In 2021, around 110,288 children attended in-school or after-school literacy activities, and 60,978 young people participated in peer groups and clubs to learn new skills and develop positive values.

A group of young people sit under a big tree, listening to a young woman standing and speaking to them.
In Malawi, these young people are getting equipped with essential life skills and learning positive values in their school’s Youth Club. Photo: Charles Kabena.

6. How can I help protect children’s right to education?

It takes a world to fully realize the right to education for children everywhere. Here are a few ways you can advocate for all children to experience the right to education.

Advocacy
The fight to bring quality education to all children is a global effort. As mentioned earlier, the Canadian government has an international commitment to helping all children experience quality education. You can hold our government accountable by signing this petition calling for Canada to continue to invest in global education.

Raw Hope
Our Raw Hope program supports long-term solutions for families recovering from the effects of conflict and upheaval. This includes helping children recover from disaster through structured activities and safe places for light education and psychological safety.

Child sponsorship
When you sponsor a child, you support both their individual educational journey and the development of their community. This initiative pools together funds from donors, partners and the Government of Canada to provide access to necessities such as nutritious food, clean water, health care and education among others.
 

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