Human rights education for all


In the second part of her article, PROF CHIAM HENG KENG explores the issues surrounding human rights education

IN my last article I wrote on the rights of children in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which is one of the five human rights instruments that Malaysia has signed and ratified.  

Most people are as suspicious of human rights as they are of children’s rights. Just as they believe that teaching children their rights will turn them into rebellious, impertinent and difficult-to-control monsters, they fear that promoting human rights in society will make Malaysians demanding, critical and difficult-to-govern.  

Therefore, teaching human rights in school is out of the question because students enlightened on human rights will give teachers a hard time and will become exacting and unreasonable adults. 

For most Malaysians, their notion of human rights is shaped by sensational or attention-capturing events pertaining to human rights. These include the Kesas Highway inquiry and report, deaths in lock-ups, terrorists’ attack on the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001 and call for the abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA) by certain sectors of society.  

These civil and political rights are attention-grabbing but they do not touch the lives of the majority of Malaysians. There are other human rights that pervade the lives of almost every one of us. Among these rights are the right to education, the right to employment, and the right to a clean and healthy environment.  

Succinctly, human rights refer to those rights due to us as a human being. Consequently, they are the rights essential to a person’s well-being. Since human dignity is at the core of human rights, violations or enhancement of human rights are bound to occur in situations or places where human interactions abound.  

School is one of the places where there are numerous interactions. Besides the interactions between teachers and students, frequent occurrences are student-student, student-administrator and teacher-administrator interactions. These interactions either uphold or infringe upon human rights.  

When teachers provide their students with the best possible education experiences irrespective of gender, socio-economic status, race or religious background, they are promoting human rights through their practices and furnishing their students with good role models. 

Types of violations 

In addition, they are upholding children’s right to education and development. When teachers genuinely accept disabled children as members of the class, they recognise the right of the disabled to education and their right to enjoy a full and decent life.  

Unfortunately, there are also numerous incidences of human rights violations.  

Four types of violations against human rights are found in school. First is students’ violation of the school’s right. For instance, vandalism, a common occurrence in school, is students’ infringement upon the school’s right to ownership.  

Caning, on the other hand, can constitute the school’s violation of students’ rights, if it is cruel or abusive or is intended to degrade students’ dignity.  

When students threaten to harm the teacher or his/her property, students have violated teachers’ right to safety.  

When students assault or bully their schoolmates, they are violating their peers’ rights to safety and freedom from torture, cruelty and degrading treatment.  

Social problems continue to rise in schools and society, not only in terms of numbers but also in gravity. This trend suggests that the various strategies and numerous programmes have failed to arrest the growth and spread of social ills.  

Teaching children their rights – which include the right to human dignity, education and development, and the need for them to uphold their rights and those of others for their own well-being and that of others – places the onus on them. This approach may arrest the current trend in social problems because it places the responsibility on children to be accountable for their own deeds and the consequences of their actions.  

The inclusion of human rights in the school curriculum may tip the scale a little away from the stress on learning facts and towards character development, especially of caring and responsibility.  

Rights in history 

Human rights elements are found in most of the school subjects. Moral education has a section on human rights entitled “Values Related to Human Rights”. When religious instruction requires students to “do to others as they like others to do unto them”, it is teaching them the importance of upholding human dignity which is theessence of human rights.  

Violations of human rights abound in history and bringing in human rights into history lessons is giving a human face to the subject. Right to life, right to healthy living, respect for one’s body, right of children to be protected from drug and sexual abuse are relevant topics in health and biology classes.  

Even language classes include elements of human rights. Article 13 of the CRC, which pertains to the child’s right to freedom of expression, in reality provides for the teaching of communication and interpersonal skills which are topics in the language curriculum. The list of the relevance of human rights to school can go on and on. 

I would like to touch on some violations that are more subtle but nonetheless important to children’s well-being.  

Children of low socio-economic status may be discriminated against without realising it.  

Many children from culturally- deprived families begin school with low literacy and numeracy skills. If schools do not help these children overcome their developmental deficits and instead ignore their plight by catering to the majority in the class who have attained these skills, then these children are discriminated against.  

As they fall more and more behind their classmates until they can understand neither their teachers nor their textbooks, then further violations of human rights take place. These non-achieving students are likely to play truant and in most cases, are drawn into social ills.  

When non-achieving students or academic failures play truant, they are depriving themselves of the right to education, and the right to employment as well because today’s society requires educated workers.  

Degrading treatment disallowed 

Although children are denying themselves the right to education in staying away from school, the school has also denied culturally deprived children of the right to Article 29 (1)(a) of CRC that pertains to development of their persona-lity, talents, mental and physical abilities to the fullest potential, when it fails to carry out programmes to erase their developmental deficits.  

Therefore, while delinquent children violate the school’s right to ownership by vandalising, the rights of others by subjecting them to physical violence and their own rights to be protected from drug and sexual abuse, they were discriminated in the first place and denied the right to Article 29(1)(a). 

When teachers call students names, such as “gemuk”, “kerbau”, “bodoh” or label them in any way that degrades the child’s dignity, they are violating several rights of the child, including Article 37 of the CRC which says “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment...”  

No doubt teachers have the right to freedom of expression, but this freedom does not give them the right to inflict pain and psychological harm on children.  

Let me cite an actual incident. A Year Two child was so stressed by his teacher’s constant use of “gemuk” and his classmates’ teasing that going to school was a psychological pain which reached the point of his not wanting to attend school.  

While it is understandable that teachers are stressed and frustrated by disruption and class indiscipline this frustration should be not be displayed in a form that degrades a child’s dignity and causes psychological pain.  

Some teachers may not even be aware of the impact names have upon children’s self-worth and dignity. A childcare provider called all her charges by the names she gave them to reflect their distinctive characteristics. To her, the names reflect her affection but some of the names bear negative connotations. 

Therefore, human rights should not be just for students. It should be for teachers and school administrators as well.  

It is important to include human rights education in teacher education in colleges as well as in universities. Society, whether it is in school or at large, will be more caring and the world a nicer place if we are able to uphold the human dignity of each other.

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