Camilla Alonzo, Legal and Programmes Officer, Equal Rights Trust, an independent international organisation whose objective is to combat discrimination and advance equality as a fundamental human rights and a basic principle of social justice
The statistics regarding the number of children out of primary school are, by now, familiar: last month, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) reported that an estimated 63 million children of primary school age are still out of school, which is roughly the size of the population of Italy. It is also well-known that the population of out-of-school children is made up disproportionately of children from disadvantaged groups: girls, who are still far more likely never to enter school, children with disabilities, children from ethnic, linguistic or racial minorities, refugee children and the poor.
The demographic of the population of out-of-school children indicates that this issue is firmly rooted in inequality. As such, both development and human rights actors have rightly recognised the importance of equality and inclusion in tackling the issue of out-of-school children: the Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs) reiterate global commitments to universal education, with SDG4 being to “[e]nsure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, whilst the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education’s latest report explicitly focused on the role of equity and inclusion in strengthening the right to education.
Despite this growing consensus on the importance of understanding inequality as a factor in exclusion from education, the relevance of equality law to the achievement of universal primary education has historically been underexplored. The Equal Rights Trust has sought to fill this gap by conducting research into how both current and past patterns of discrimination lead to children being out of primary school. This research resulted in the publication of “Learning InEquality”, a global report which explores the use of equality law to tackle barriers to primary education for out-of-school children.
“Learning InEquality” applies an equality law lens to the issue of out-of-school children, analysing existing data and research from across the world in order to illuminate the discriminatory nature of the barriers and challenges which prevent children from accessing or completing primary education. By adopting this approach, the report presents overwhelming evidence that different prohibited forms of discrimination (direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and failure to make reasonable accommodation) result in certain children being unable to participate in primary education. The discriminatory barriers identified in the report include the direct and indirect costs of schooling, the geographical inaccessibility of schools, enrolment requirements, the inadequacy of physical and human resources, issues surrounding language, curricula and other educational materials, and school-based violence and harassment.
The report demonstrates how certain children are disproportionately disadvantaged by these barriers and identifies government failures to rectify historic and systemic inequalities through taking positive action measures.
Through applying an equality law approach, “Learning InEquality” demonstrates that the correlation between membership of a marginalised group, and exclusion from primary education, is not coincidental, since inequality and discrimination play an evident role in restricting access to primary education. Having drawn this connection between discrimination and exclusion from primary school, “Learning InEquality” makes the case for why equality law should be used to address the issue of out-of-school children, and how it can be used to do so.
The report notes that there are significant practical and strategic advantages to using an equality law approach to tackle the issue of out-of-school children. The rights to equality and non-discrimination can provide a new legal and policy framework for identifying and categorising some of the complex and multifaceted reasons that children are out of school, and for guiding the allocation of state resources in favour of increasing access to education for marginalised children. However, the report goes further than this, arguing that adopting a legal framework is not only tactically and practically beneficial, it is also a necessity if efforts to address the issue of out-of-school children are to be effective and coherent.
This conclusion regarding the necessity of adopting an equality law approach has a number of implications for stakeholders working to ensure that all children receive a primary education:
- First and foremost, states must take effective steps to ensure the equal enjoyment of the right to primary education through removing discriminatory barriers to education, and adopting targeted positive action measures to correct historic and systemic inequalities. Following the 4th meeting of the UN SDG Education 2030 Steering Committee from 28 February to 2 March 2018, a number of Recommendations were made to stakeholders in relation to the achievement of SDG4, including the recommendation that states “identify better the many obstacles that undermine the right to education”. Given the findings of “Learning InEquality”, and the correlation between school exclusion and patterns of discrimination, it is essential that states adopt an equality law approach when identifying the obstacles that undermine the right to education.
- It is necessary for all relevant stakeholders and actors – including civil society, international human rights and development actors, education providers, international organisations and donors – to integrate an equality law approach into all education-related work, including through education programme financing, education policy, the provision of technical support to domestic actors, and integrating thinking about equal education into other areas of tangential international programming.
The overarching conclusion of “Learning InEquality” is that if the goal of universal primary education is to be achieved, an equality law approach is an essential part of the effort: it is only through adopting an equality law approach that the full range of factors which lead to certain groups of children being out of school can be properly identified, understood and addressed.
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