IN simple terms, education is: learning to learn, learning to know, learning to do and learning to be.
Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 is the basic right to education: Education shall be free at least in the elementary stages.
Elementary education shall be compulsory. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedom.
This was envisaged 56 years ago. But where are we now, especially in the education of girls, the majority of whom remain illiterate?
President Nelson Mandela once said: “When women are in charge, there is less corruption, more transparency and resources are better used. It has been proven that where income is given to the woman of the family, the nutritional value to the family increases eight-fold than when the money is given to the man.”
How could women be in charge when access to education in various countries and societies is denied? The answer: Start schooling them young.
The Women’s World Conference in Beijing in 1995 had this to say in its Platform for Action on Education: “We are called to eliminate discrimination in education, ensure universal access to and completion of primary education, increase retention rates of girls, eliminate barriers to school young mothers and pregnant girls, and remove barriers to sexual and reproductive health education.”
According to Stephen Woodhouse of Unicef, nine million girls aged seven to 18 worldwide are denied educational rights every year, and 83% of those who did not attend school live in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific.
Education remains a distant dream for millions who cannot be reached.
Study after study has shown that one of society’s best investments is in girls’ education. It grooms, develops and taps talent and potential, allowing them to transform society in whatever small way they can.
Educated girls become educated women; an educated woman knows her rights and will be able to handle social, economic, health and environment issues. She is able to contribute towards the enhancement of her family and community.
Educated women are more likely to be part of the labour force and have a longer life span with improved living standards and nutrition.
What happens when girls are denied education and left in the periphery? Poverty, child marriages, prostitution and trafficking, slavery, maternal mortality, HIV, child labour and domestic violence are some of the results.
More than 51 million girls below 18 are married and the next decade will see 100 million more girls marry before they turn 18.
For these young girls, marriage halts their education abruptly, leading to social isolation and risky pregnancies.
Can this vicious tide of deprivation and exploitation be halted?
One proposal involves giving economic incentives to families who do not wed their young daughters, educating boys about the human rights violation of child marriages and supporting married girls with schooling opportunities.
Efforts to reduce school fees and to provide free books are under way. Parents in certain parts of China who send their daughters to school are given priority for loans, while Guinea has raised the marriage age. Parents need to be educated on why their young daughters should not be married off, especially to much older men.
Educating the disabled
Disabled persons have the inherent right to respect for their human dignity. They have a right first and foremost to enjoy a decent life, as fully and normally as possible.
The misleading concept is that disabled persons need not be educated. This has led to the neglect of many, resulting in the loss of opportunities to contribute to their community.
Perception of the handicapped is changing in some countries but the vast majority remains uncared by society at large.
“Inclusive education” for children identified as capable of learning with normal children is a hot and challenging topic, and many service organisations continue to explore the workings of this emerging aspect of education.
Society can help with early detection and intervention, through public awareness programmes, by providing incentives and rehabilitation programmes.
NGOs have a role to play in this aspect of “special education” to help the disabled achieve their full potential.
Those entrusted with this aspect of education need to be educated and trained in subjects such as music therapy, kitchen craft, art therapy, pre-vocational skills, computer graphics and play therapy.
The UN has declared 1993-2002 to be the Asia-Pacific Disabled Persons Decade, spurring countries to undertake reforms for the disabled.
More employment opportunities have been made available, with legislative procedures put in place to help them earn a living. Buildings, walkways and public transport have been made user-friendly for the physically challenged.
When you meet a person with a disability, remember: See the person, not the disability.
Progress has been made in worldwide literacy, healthcare, women’s rights and general life expectancy. Children today are more vocal and do not want to be left behind.
At the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Children in 2002, children from all over the world presented these sterling statements:
A World Fit for Children is a World Fit for Everyone.
We are not the source of problems; we are the resources to solve them.
We are not expenses; we are investments.
We are not just young people; we are the citizens of the world.
You call us the future; but we are also the present.
Resources, human endeavour and social investment are needed to combat social issues. Providing the education has much to do with human development and dignity.
Poverty is increasingly feminised. Many societies have inherited the “culture of silence” because they have never known community empowerment. Girls and women continue to suffer traditional, patriarchal, ethnic and religious underpinnings.
“The ‘I’ in ‘you’ is the best guarantee for a better world in which we all have a stake,” said Dr Mamphela, managing director of the World Bank Group.