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Global Momentum Builds Toward Free Education for All Children

Legal Guarantee for Free Education on the Agenda at the UN Human Rights Council

A young girl in her pre-primary class in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In 2022, Uzbekistan hosted the World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education.  © 2023 Bede Sheppard / Human Rights Watch

This year, at the United Nations’ top human rights body in Geneva, there are signs of a potential giant leap forward, with growing hopes for new legal recognition of every child’s right to free education, from pre-primary through secondary education.

On March 20, the Dominican Republic, along with other states including Luxembourg, Sierra Leone,  Colombia, Panama, Nauru, Bulgaria, and Romania, together with Human Rights Watch, Plan International, and Girls Not Brides will convene countries at the Human Rights Council to discuss the immediate need for a new legal instrument. They will emphasize the critical intersection between free preprimary and secondary education and human rights, with a particular focus on empowering girls and women.

Globally, nearly half of all children are not enrolled in preprimary education, with only 2 in 5 children in low- and lower-middle-income countries attending such programs. Additionally, only 45 percent of children completed secondary school in 2021. For too many children, the cost of preprimary and secondary education remains a significant barrier to attendance. Global failure to universalize free access to the full cycle of education perpetuates poverty and inequality and hinders societal progress and development.

Yet many low- and middle-income countries are making significant strides to provide more free education. Countries like Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Nepal, and Sierra Leone, among at least 110 worldwide, have legislation that guarantees at least one year of free preprimary education and free secondary education.

But international human rights law has not kept pace with this progress. For example, the UN’s children’s rights treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, does not obligate states to provide free secondary education on the same immediate basis as primary education, nor does it explicitly reference early childhood education. This discrepancy is spurring growing global support for enshrining these rights into a new legal instrument, a fourth optional protocol to the convention. In turn, new international law could propel further implementation of free education in countries where fees are still charged.

It is imperative that other states rally behind this initiative. Together, they can guarantee that every child can learn and fulfill their potential, laying the groundwork for a more just and equitable future.

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