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The Right to Education

01 July 2011
Afghan girl students reading books (U.N./Eskinder Debebe)

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) supports the Zarghuna Girls School in Kabul, Afghanistan.

By Dr. Kishore Singh

Dr. Kishore Singh is an international law expert and the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to education.

Women have historically been subjected to social injustice and educational deprivation. At the World Education Forum in 2000, 164 countries made a collective commitment to the Education for All (EFA) goals, which include achieving gender parity in education by 2005 and equal access to quality basic education by 2015. Similarly, the United Nations Millennium Declaration, also in 2000, established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with the commitment to achieve gender parity in access to primary and secondary education and to empower women (MDG Number 3) by 2015.

However, many countries are falling behind in carrying out the EFA agenda, and the prospects of achieving MDG No. 3 are bleak. The daunting challenge is to bridge the gap between commitments and reality. Doing so requires governments to place greater emphasis on human rights as the basis underpinning such commitments and to ensure equal access to education as a key component in upholding basic human rights.

Access to Education Is a Human Right

Educating women and girls is often viewed in terms of the many positive benefits that education confers to them, their children and their societies. Educated women can participate and contribute to a country’s social, economic and political development. However, educating women and girls should, à priori, be viewed as a human rights imperative rather than one undertaken solely because of potential benefits to their children or to society. The right to education is an internationally recognized human right, to which women and girls are as much entitled as men and boys. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) establishes every person’s right to education. Inspired by the Universal Declaration, various international human rights conventions prohibit any discrimination based on sex or gender. Access to free, compulsory primary education is an inalienable right of every child — boys and girls alike — under all such conventions.

The right to education as an entitlement is inextricably linked with the right to education as empowerment. Women’s right to education, both as entitlement and as empowerment, is established by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979). The convention lays down the obligations of the states parties to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure them equal rights with men in the field of education” and “in particular to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women” access to education at all levels and in all its form.

International human rights conventions require that states incorporate a commitment to internationally recognized human rights into their respective domestic laws. Tying a human rights framework to a country’s domestic law is essential in ensuring educational opportunities for women and girls. Access to education is a human right that is essential for the exercise of many other human rights, including the right to economic and social empowerment.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)