(New York) - Children around the world face systematic barriers to schooling that are undermining global progress towards universal primary education, Human Rights Watch said today in a report released ahead of the U.N. World Summit.

Human Rights Watch investigations in more than 20 countries found that school fees and related education costs, the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, discrimination, violence and other obstacles keep an estimated 100 million children out of school, the majority of whom are girls. The 60-page report, "Failing Our Children: Barriers to the Right to Education," is based on interviews with hundreds of children in all regions of the world.

On September 14, an estimated 170 world leaders will gather at the United Nations in New York, in part to assess progress on the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000. One of the eight goals is to ensure that by 2015, every child attends and completes primary school.

"Schooling is a fundamental human right for every child, and it's also essential for global development," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the Children's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. "Education breaks generational cycles of poverty, protects children from exploitation and improves their very chances of survival."

In more than a dozen countries, Human Rights Watch found that school fees and related costs such as books, uniforms and transportation cause many children to drop out of school, start late or never attend at all. In El Salvador, the annual cost of schooling for one child is nearly four times the minimum monthly wage for an agricultural worker. Human Rights Watch found that prohibitive school fees are often linked to children's entry into the worst forms of child labor, including sex work in Papua New Guinea, domestic labor in Indonesia, hazardous work on banana plantations in Ecuador, and child soldiering in Burma.

"Under international human rights law, countries have a clear obligation to provide free primary education to all children," said Becker.

Human Rights Watch also documented the devastating effect of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic on children's right to education, particularly for the estimated 14 million children worldwide who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. Both in sub-Saharan Africa, where the crisis is most acute, as well as countries like India and Russia, Human Rights Watch found that children affected by HIV/AIDS may be denied access to school or mistreated by teachers because of the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. Many children, particularly girls, are pulled out of school to care for sick family members, or are forced to work to supplement their family's income when a parent falls ill or dies.

Another of the eight Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 include halting and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"As AIDS impoverishes more families and produces new generations of orphans, its negative impact on children's right to education will only intensify," said Becker. "Governments need to adopt focused strategies to keep children affected by HIV/AIDS in school, particularly since education is one of the most effective means of reducing the risk of HIV infection."

The first target set for the Millennium Development Goals, which called for getting an equal number of girls into school as boys by 2005, has already been missed. Girls make up an estimated 60 percent of children who are out of school. Traditional biases against educating girls often influence parents to give priority to their sons over their daughters for schooling, particularly when school fees or poverty make it difficult for parents to send all of their children to school.

Girls are preferred for certain kinds of child labor, particularly domestic work, which typically involves isolation and long hours that are incompatible with schooling. Girls are also particularly vulnerable to sexual violence by classmates and teachers and are less likely to travel long or dangerous routes to get to school.

"In some parts of the world, gender disparities in education are in fact growing wider," said Becker. "Governments need to make stronger efforts to get girls into school, and to address the barriers to education that disproportionately affect girls."

Measures to increase girls' education include educating families and communities about the benefits of girls' education, improving security in and around schools, addressing sexual violence in the schools, and providing incentives for girls to attend and remain in school, such as free meals or stipends conditional on school attendance.

Human Rights Watch also urged governments to:

  • ensure that children are not denied their right to education because of school fees or associated costs of education;
  • enact and enforce bans prohibiting discrimination in education against children because of their race, ethnicity, gender, social, HIV or other status, and identify and include populations of children underserved by the education system;
  • address the interrelationship between education and child labor by providing incentives to keep children in school, expanding educational opportunities for working children and making stronger efforts to remove children from the worst forms of child labor.

Countries investigated as part of Human Rights Watch's report included Brazil, Burma, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Spain, South Africa, Togo, Uganda, United States and Zambia.