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I. Summary and Key Recommendations

At the Millennium Summit in 2000, governments reaffirmed ambitious commitments—to ensure that by 2015, every child around the world is able to attend and complete primary school, and to ensure that by 2005, as many girls as boys would be attending school. Five years after the summit, school attendance has increased in many parts of the world, but education remains beyond the reach of many millions of the world’s children, particularly girls. An estimated sixty million girls and forty million boys are still out of school.1

The benefits of education to both children and broader society could not be more clear. Education breaks generational cycles of poverty by enabling children to gain skills and knowledge for better jobs. Education is strongly linked to concrete improvements in health and nutrition, improving children’s very chances for survival. Education empowers children to be full and active participants in society, able to exercise their rights and engage in civil and political life. Education is also a powerful protection factor: children who are in school are less likely to come into conflict with the law and much less vulnerable to rampant forms of child exploitation, including child labor, trafficking, and recruitment into armed groups and forces.

Access to free and compulsory primary schooling is already guaranteed by the nearly universally ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, progress in realizing this right is woefully slow. In more than thirty investigations around the world, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly found significant and systematic barriers to safe and accessible schooling that violate children’s rights to an education, undermine their ability to learn, and cause them to drop out.

For many children, particularly those from poor families, school fees and related costs of schooling put education beyond their reach. Fees imposed by schools may include fees for tuition, matriculation, exams and a range of other expenses, including electricity, water, heat, teacher’s bonuses, and costs of maintenance. In addition, many families must pay for uniforms, books, other school supplies and transportation. In more than a dozen countries, Human Rights Watch found that these combined costs often cause children to drop out of school, start late, or never attend at all.

The global HIV/AIDS epidemic has had a devastating impact on children’s right to education, particularly for the estimated fourteen million children worldwide who have lost one or both parents to HIV.  Both in sub-Saharan Africa, where the crisis is most acute, as well as countries like India and Russia, Human Rights Watch has 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. Children, particularly girls, may be pulled out of school to care for sick family members. Others may be unable to cover the costs of education and forced to work in order to supplement their family’s income when a parent falls ill or dies.

Other children suffer discrimination in gaining access to education based on their race, ethnicity, religion or other status. Human Rights Watch investigations in countries that include Colombia, Guinea, India, Israel, Mexico, Spain, South Africa, and Sri Lanka found that migrant children, children from rural areas, ethnic or religious minorities, internally displaced and refugee children, indigenous children, and Dalit or low-caste children were often denied equal access to education, or in some cases, access to any education at all. For children in detention, opportunities for education are often grossly deficient.

For many children, the biggest threat to their right to education is violence within or near their schools that undermines their ability to learn, puts their physical and psychological well-being at risk, and often causes them to drop out of school entirely. These abuses include ongoing use of corporal punishment as a disciplinary measure, violence and harassment against sexual and other minorities, widespread sexual violence against girls by their fellow students and teachers, and the risk of sexual violence against girls traveling to and from school. Fulfilling children’s right to education entails not only the presence of schools and teachers, but also ensuring an environment that allows them to learn in safety.

The right to education is also inextricably linked to the phenomenon of child labor, which involves an estimated 246 million children around the globe. Our research has documented the detrimental impact of child labor on education in countries including Ecuador, El Salvador, India, Indonesia, Togo and the United States. We found that children who have no access to quality schooling often enter the workforce, particularly if they are from poor families that need additional income. Once engaged in child labor, children are often unable to return to school or continue their education.  In many cases, employers actively prohibit children from attending school, while in others, the long hours demanded by employers make schooling practically impossible. The result is often generations of poverty, fueled by low-wage, unskilled work and lack of education that could provide children with more and better options for their future.

All of these barriers to education disproportionately affect girls. Traditional biases against educating girls often cause parents to give priority to their sons over the daughters for schooling, particularly when prohibitive school fees or poverty make it difficult for parents to send all of their children to school. In many heavily AIDS-affected countries, such discrimination is increasing, as girls are often pulled out of school to care for ailing relatives or replace lost income. Girls are also 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 than boys to travel long or dangerous routes to get to school.

Governments cannot meet the goal of universal primary education without addressing the human rights abuses that undermine children’s rights to education. Ensuring every child a basic education depends on much stronger efforts to remove the obstacles that deny children access to school, and to address the violence that threatens their safe completion of schooling.

Ensuring every child’s access to quality and safe education will also demand a stronger role by the international community. Donor countries pledged to support education for all initiatives at the World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000, declaring that  “no country seriously committed to Education for All will be thwarted in its achievement of universal primary school completion by 2015 due to lack of resources.”2 In 2002, member states of the United Nations met in Monterrey, Mexico and recognized that substantial increases in development assistance were needed to help developing countries achieve the millennium development goals. Members pledged among other things to, “make concrete efforts towards the target of 0.7 percent of gross national product (GNP) as ODA [Official Development Assistance] to developing countries.”3  The Education for All-Fast Track Initiative was launched later that year as an initiative to implement the “Monterrey Consensus.” Under the Fast-Track Initiative, donor governments agreed to provide coordinated and increased financial support to developing countries that prioritize universal primary education and develop sound national education plans to achieve this goal. 

However, actual financial commitments have fallen short of these pledges; the average level of ODA for donor countries stood at 0.25 percent in 2004, 4 and the 2004 progress report for the Education for All-Fast Track Initiative reported that external support for primary education in low-income countries would need to increase from an average of just over $1 billion to about $3.7 billion a year in order to ensure adequate funding for universal primary education.5

This report is based on more than thirty investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch in over twenty countries since 1998. We interviewed hundreds of children who were out of school, faced barriers to gaining access to education, or had experienced abuses in the educational system, as well as members of their families, nongovernmental organizations and other advocates, officials, and other sources. To protect their privacy, the names of children in this report have been changed. Unless otherwise cited, all quotes are from the previous Human Rights Watch reports indicated.

Human Rights Watch considers a child to be any person under the age of eighteen, in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as “every human being under the age of eighteen unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is obtained earlier.”6

Key Recommendations:

Regarding School Fees:

  • Governments should ensure that all children enjoy their right to free primary education. No child should ever be denied their right to education because of school fees or related costs of education. Strategies to eliminate or reduce the costs of attending school could include lifting fees, providing stipends conditional on school attendance, provision of free uniforms or lifting of uniform requirements, provision of free textbooks, provision of transportation (for example, bicycles or bus service) or free school meals to attract poor children to school. 

Regarding Funding:

  • Donor governments should meet existing pledges made at the 2002 International Conference on Financing for Development (the Monterrey Consensus) to work with governments to provide long-term technical and financial support to ensure every child is in school by at least 2015; donors should prioritize increased aid to developing countries that have developed and adopted sound national education plans to achieve universal primary education as part of the Education for All-Fast-Track Initiative.  

Regarding the Impact of HIV/AIDS:

  • Governments should enact and enforce laws prohibiting all discrimination in education against children based on their real or perceived HIV status; provide children, families, teachers, educational officials and the broader community with factual and comprehensive information about HIV/AIDS; and take steps to strengthen the ability of extended families to care for AIDS-affected children and provide them with formal schooling.

Regarding Discrimination and Access:

  • Governments should enact and enforce legislation and policies prohibiting discrimination in education against children because of their race, ethnicity, gender, social or other status, and ensure that resources are allocated to ensure that all children have equal access to schooling.Governments must develop concrete plans and mechanisms to identify and include populations of children that are underserved by the education system or face discrimination in accessing education.

Regarding Child Labor:

  • Both governments and international agencies must address effectively the interrelationship of education and child labor by simultaneously 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 and ensure their placement in appropriate educational programs. 

Regarding Violence:

  • Governments should implement comprehensive measures to ensure the safety of schoolchildren by taking effective measures to address physical and sexual abuse by other students, teachers, staff or principals; ensuring the safety of schoolchildren on their way to and from school; and adopting and implementing prohibitions on the use of corporal punishment.

Regarding Girls’ Education:

  • Governments should take steps to ensure gender equality in education by educating families and communities about the benefits of girls’ education; providing incentives to enroll and retain girls in school; improving security for schoolgirls, including on their way to and from school; and investigating and prosecuting those responsible for sexual violence against girls, including by other students, teachers or principals. 

[1] Global Campaign for Education, Missing the Mark: A School Report on rich countries’ contribution to Universal Primary Education by 2015, April 2005.

[2] Dakar Framework for Action, “Education for All: Meeting our Collective Commitments,” text adopted at the World Education Forum, Dakar, Senegal, 26-28 April 2000,

[3] United Nations, Monterrey Consensus of the International Conference on Financing for Development (New York: United Nations Publications, 2002), A/CONF.198/11, p. 9.

[4] Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, “Official Development Assistance Increases Further, but 2006 Targets Still a Challenge,” April 11, 2005,,2340,en_2649_201185_34700611_1_1_1_1,00.html

[5] World Bank Education Sector, Human Development Network, Education for All (EFA)- Fast Track Initiative Progress Report, March 26, 2004, report prepared for the Development Committee of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, DC2004-002/1.

[6] Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 1, adopted November 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force September 2, 1990).

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