24 Apr Education and the Rights of Children
By Anjum Altaf
In earlier posts we have highlighted what we feel many schools in South Asia are doing (inculcating hatred) that is harmful to the social psyche of children. We have also discussed what we feel enough schools are not doing (proactively teaching tolerance) that would be beneficial for the social health of South Asian countries.
In this post we look at education from a different perspective and raise two questions that ought to occupy centre-stage in the debate over the public school curriculum: What are the rights of a child? And, how are these rights to be ensured?
There is much room for disagreement on the first, which should lead to a vigorous debate. This would be interesting, given that ‘rights’ cover the entire spectrum from the simple to the complex and from the obvious to the controversial.
Within the realm of education, one can identify a number of rights worthy of discussion. Do children have the right to an education? If yes, of what kind, and up to what level? Do children have the right to be spared physical punishment? Do children have the right to refuse indoctrination of any type? Can a child claim protection against attempts to mould him or her into a particular type of individual?
These are all very important questions, and the absence of a debate on them reflects poorly on civil society. It suggests indifference to the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes numerous clauses that some people in South Asia seem to disagree with.
For example, Article 13(1) states, in general, that: “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.”
Article 17(e) says that States should “Encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being.” An informed debate is needed on whether these rights are being honored or violated in the case of the public school curricula in the different countries of South Asian.
The lack of discussion on controversial issues obscures the more critical issue of ensuring the rights of children even when they are not controversial. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, like most conventions, is non-binding, which is precisely the reason it can be ignored. Here we come face to face with the reality that, unlike most other interest groups, children are not in a position to lobby politically for their rights. All other groups (women, laborers, farmers, manufacturers, retirees, lawyers, etc.) can do so, if they want to. But children cannot; someone else has to speak on their behalf.
And this, in turn, leads to a further complication because adults cannot seem to avoid using children as pawns in their political contests. The real rights of children are ignored in the struggle to score political points or ensure outcomes favorable to particular groups. And children can do nothing to put a stop to this exploitation. Animals and poor children get treated equally poorly in developing countries, but even in many richer ones the lobby to protect animals is often stronger than the one protecting children.
The problem of indifference is starkly obvious in the case of the rights of the unborn. An ethical perspective demands that we, as trustees, consider the rights of future generations in our use of the natural resources of the earth. However, existing generations and their political representatives pay very little heed to this obligation. This indifference might change radically if the unborn were somehow able to vote. But they cannot, and hence their rights are consistently ignored and jeopardized.
The situation is not very different for children. Take the public school curriculum, for example. Long ago, Socrates described education as the kindling of a flame, not the filling of an empty vessel. We fill our children’s heads with whatever content is deemed ‘right’ at a particular time to serve the ends of adults. In the process, how many rights of children, who cannot protest this treatment, are trampled?
Because it is not possible to ask a child about these things, there seems no way out of this conundrum. It might be worthwhile, though, to ask the adults of today their views on education and how they would have liked to be have been educated as children.
Perhaps a good research design might be able to yield usable and unbiased answers. They could be disaggregated by age, gender, domicile and income to find out who it is that would like to do unto others what they would not have liked done unto themselves.
In South Asia today children are being used as frontline soldiers in the battles for God or revolution or liberation. These are very important questions to raise and discuss on their behalf at such a time.