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II. School Fees

In many countries around the world, school fees and related education costs create formidable barriers to children’s right to education. A 2000-2001 World Bank survey found fees levied in seventy-seven of seventy-nine low-income countries; most had several different types of fees.7 Although formal tuition fees have been abolished in many countries, particularly in Africa since 2000, the associated costs of education—books, uniforms, supplies, transportation—are still extremely common and prohibitively expensive for many families. In many countries where formal fees have been lifted without an effective reallocation of resources, local schools have imposed additional “informal” fees to make up for the lost income. In such cases, the financial burden still falls upon children and their families.

In investigations in Burma (Myanmar), China, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Togo, and Zambia, Human Rights Watch found that school fees and related costs posed a significant barrier to children’s education, and were often linked to non-attendance, dropout, and the entry of children into child labor.

In Indonesia, a 2003 national education law guarantees the right to basic education for citizens aged seven through fifteen. However, neither primary education nor lower secondary education is free. Instead, the education law codifies funding for education as a “shared responsibility” of the national and regional governments, and the “community.”

Child domestic workers, primarily girls, interviewed in Indonesia by Human Rights Watch reported that costs associated with education forced them to drop out of school prior to completing nine years of education.8 Ami, who began working as a domestic worker when she was thirteen, explained that a government school turned her away because she could not pay fees:

I finished elementary school. I said to my father that I want to continue, but my father said, ‘I’m sorry, I cannot afford the cost’. . .  I went to a lower secondary school for one week, but I was expected to pay a down payment. I went to school and asked if it was okay that I enroll. The teacher said okay, but you have to pay after some days. After a week, the school asked me to pay and my parents couldn’t pay the money. It was for tuition, books, [and] uniform. It was a government school. The down payment was about 100,000 rupiahs [US $11.11] and the total was maybe 200,000 rupiahs [US $22.22]. So I left the school. I wanted to go and when I had to leave I was so sad. I would like to go back to school.

In addition to school fees, costs associated with uniforms, shoes, books, and transportation fees are obstacles to education for children in Indonesia. Hartini told us that her family paid 20,000 rupiahs [US$2.22] per month in school fees, but that uniforms, books, and supplies cost them an additional 200,000 rupiahs [US$22.22] a year.

The United Nations Human Development Report 2004 on Indonesia notes that although a vast majority of children enroll in school, only about half complete nine years of basic education.9 According to the report, around 18 percent of children drop out before completing primary school, while the rest do not enter or do not complete lower secondary school, due to poverty, incidental fees, and expenses for uniforms and books, as well as the quality of education.10 Katarina Tomaševski, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, concluded in her 2002 examination of the education system in Indonesia that poverty and costs are the key obstacles to children’s accessibility to education.11

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), school fees are very high compared with the average annual income.  According to the PNG Department of Labor, caps on school fees in 2004-2005 ranged from 100 kina [US$31.65] through grade two to 1,200 kina [US$379.75] for day students in grades eleven through twelve.  Per capita gross national income was U.S.$510 in 2003.12  In 2003, gross enrollment rates were 61 percent for elementary school and 18 percent for secondary school.13

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than fifteen boys and girls in Papua New Guinea in September 2004 who said they were forced to drop out of school or never attended at all because they or their parents could not pay the fees and related costs of schooling.14  Yoshidah explained how school fees became an insurmountable barrier for his family, even though both of his parents were working: 

I stopped school last year in grade seven because I didn’t pay my school fees so I had to stay at home.  It cost 130 kina [US$41.14].  The uniform I paid separately—25 kina [US$7.91] for the shirt, 35 kina [US$11.08] for the trousers, black shoes cost about 25 kina [US$7.91].  Without shoes, you get sent home.  If I went to school without shoes or with a torn uniform, they sent me home to fix it. . . . 

I think of going back to school. 

I live with my parents.  My father is working.  My mother does marketing—she cooks vegetables and sells them.  I have two brothers plus me, four sisters, one who died.  Two sisters go to school in grades five and two, one is too small.  One brother is in grade three.  My parents were paying their school fees, so they couldn’t afford mine.  I am the oldest so the school fee is more expensive and I had to stay home.  My other brother also had to stay at home because of the school fee problem.

Although some government officials told us that children were not automatically expelled from school for not paying the fee, many of the children we interviewed said that schools sent them home for that reason. Papua New Guinea’s Secretary for Education told us that in his opinion, “[i]t’s not a good idea to abolish school fees,” and suggested that parents who fail to pay should be taken to court because they are “parasiting on the other children.”

As in many other countries, school fees in Papua New Guinea not only cause many children to drop out, but may also force children into the worst forms of child labor.  Rose told Human Rights Watch:  “I left school because my parents stopped paying the fee. . . .  I left at grade seven.  I got very angry at my parents and I went with my friends and then I came out [started in sex work]. . . .  The fees were 100-150 kina [US$31.65-$47.47] but my parents didn’t pay, so I didn’t go back to school.  I ran away.  Now I live with the owner of the [brothel].  I still have my clothes—my uniform—but I don’t want to go back again.” A project addressing HIV/AIDS, transport industry workers, and sex workers also found instances of girls and women selling sex for money to pay school fees and bus fares for themselves or their children.

In India, most schools charge some sort of fee, if not for matriculation then for exams.  In addition, families must pay for uniforms, books, other school supplies and, if the school is not within walking distance, transportation. Human Rights Watch found that these school costs cause some children to drop out of school, start late, or never attend at all.15

According to the Public Report on Basic Education in India, a comprehensive evaluation of the education system in North India, the average annual cost of sending a child to primary school in 1996 was 318 rupees (US$6.63) for a government school and 940 rupees (US$20) for a private school.16 The World Bank notes that the direct cost of education in India, “even for public schools and even ignoring the opportunity cost, is nearly prohibitive for a poor family.”17 For rural families, where the average annual income in some areas reaches only 2,444 rupees (US$41), the cost of sending a child to school for one year exceeds a month’s income.

Indian children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in late 2003 reported that their total costs of education ranged from 500 to 1,500 rupees (US$10-31) a year to attend a government school, and 5,000 rupees (US$104) a year and up to attend a private school.

A woman caring for her niece, who had been orphaned by AIDS, told Human Rights Watch, “Textbooks cost 500 rupees (US$10) for one and 450 rupees (US$9.38) for the other. Notebooks cost 15 rupees (US$0.31), and we buy as they go along. We have to pay for the textbooks—it is mandatory.” She said that she was going to send her niece to a second year of kindergarten instead of starting her in the first grade because kindergarten cost less.

Human Rights Watch found that school fees and related costs tend to have a disproportionate impact on girls, as many parents value girls’ education less and are, therefore, less willing to pay for it. One Indian woman told Human Rights Watch that her oldest daughter, age sixteen, had already dropped out of school because of cost, and that she expected her thirteen-year old daughter to drop out as well the following year: “What can I do? I cannot afford this.” However, when we asked the mother if she would continue to educate her twelve-year old son, she answered: “Yes, he is my only son. He has to go to college and learn more and become more educated.”

In El Salvador, state schools must by law provide basic education, first through ninth grade, free of charge.18  Nevertheless, many schools charge matriculation fees or “voluntary” monthly assessments. Although schooling is free in theory, in reality, the costs for families can be prohibitive. Taking into account all costs associated with education—matriculation fees, “voluntary” contributions to school events, and the cost of uniforms, school supplies, and transportation to and from school—ILO IPEC has estimated in 2002 that the annual cost of schooling in El Salvador was 2,405 colones  (US$274.86) per child19—or nearly four times the minimum monthly wage for an agricultural worker.

Most schools in El Salvador require students to wear uniforms, adding an additional expense for students. Pedro explained to Human Rights Watch: “The shirt costs $3. Pants are $6. Black shoes—it depends what one buys. On average they are 150 ($17.14) or maybe 100 colones ($11.43).” Some schools do not permit students to attend if they do not wear a uniform. In particular the requirement that students wear black shoes caused worry among the children we interviewed, probably because black shoes are the most expensive part of the school uniform. Ignacio, fourteen, said, “We need black shoes. I need to save money to buy them. They’ll throw me out of school because I have these,” he said, pointing to his shoes. “They’ll throw me out of school because they want black ones and I have white ones.” He said that he had been attending classes for ten days, but the principal had recently told him that he could not continue to come to school without black shoes.

In Colombia, the constitution guarantees free education but provides that this right is “without prejudice to charges for the cost of academic rights for those who can afford them.” As a result of this provision, Colombian authorities have generally taken the position that some fees are permissible.

In July and August 2004, Human Rights Watch interviewed children in Colombia who reported paying up to 100,000 pesos (US$40) in matriculation fees.20 Related costs for uniforms, books, and backpacks and other supplies often total US$30 or more. Some schools also charge up to U.S.$10 in administrative fees for “paperwork” or “school records”. This is a substantial sum for poor families, particularly those with several school-age children. The minimum wage in Colombia is approximately 350,000 pesos (US$140) per month, and many wage earners make less than $40 per month.

As in El Salvador, uniforms are a near-universal requirement for students in Colombia. At some schools, students are required to have two uniforms, one ordinary uniform and another for physical education. One woman in Cazuca who cared for her grandchildren in Altos de Cazucá, a shantytown on the edge of Bogotá, told Human Rights Watch, “Two of them [the grandchildren] have the regular uniforms.” When asked what happened if students didn’t have both uniforms, she replied, “The school doesn’t admit them. This has happened to my granddaughters. The school director talked to me about my granddaughter about fifteen days ago because she didn’t have the physical education uniform. . . . The director told me I had a few weeks to buy the uniform. But it isn’t possible—we have to buy the books, the backpacks, the uniforms.” Reviewing the purchases for one of her grandchildren to attend school, she said, “The physical education uniform costs 30,000 pesos [US$12]. The other one is 15,000 pesos [$6], used. Each book is 32,000 pesos [$12.80]. The backpack is 17,000 pesos [$6.80]. I still haven’t bought the dictionary for her.”21

School uniforms are commonly required by schools throughout Latin America. The need to maintain school discipline is frequently cited as a rationale for maintaining the requirement. Some governments, like Colombia, also perceive them as a way to avoid stigmatizing vulnerable groups, such as displaced children. However, even when authorities have made efforts to guarantee access to education by removing school fees, the requirement that students wear uniforms may undercut those efforts. 

In Ecuador, constitutionally guaranteed “free” education is undermined by registration and book fees, which, when added to other costs such as uniforms, on average, can total between US $200 and US $250 per student per year.22  This sum, according to wage data gathered by Human Rights Watch during an investigation of working conditions in the banana industry, would take the average child banana worker between fifty-seven and seventy-one work days to earn, or the combined monthly wages of two working parents.

In Zambia, the government declared free education for grades one to seven in 2002 and abolished the mandatory collection of school fees. It has failed to enforce this policy and many schools, particularly in urban areas, still require fees. Human Rights Watch interviewed parents and guardians who said that their failure to pay school fees resulted in their children being turned away from school. Poor children, orphans, and children affected by AIDS are particularly affected by fees and other related costs.23

A grandmother who was caring for several of her grandchildren and living in a poor neighborhood in the capital, Lusaka, told Human Rights Watch that her orphaned granddaughter stopped attending school in 2003 because of fees. “The next January [2003], the PTA required that that students pay 16,000 kwacha (U.S. $3.10) per term, this is not voluntary but mandatory.  When the children can’t pay, they are chased from school.  This is what happened to my girl, she was chased by the teacher.”  Unable to adequately feed and clothe her grandchild, much less pay school fees, she sent her granddaughter to live with a neighbor.  This nine-year-old girl helped with chores around her neighbor’s house in exchange for room and board and was no longer attending school.

Under the Zambian free education policy, a uniform is also no longer compulsory and no pupil is to be turned away from school for failing to wear one. Even so, in practice teachers and administrators continue to deny boys and girls access to school for not wearing a uniform. In interviews, parents and students told us that children risked being sent home from school for failing to wear a uniform or more likely, were not admitted during the first days of school without one. A 2005 report from the Ministry of Sport, Youth and Child Development confirmed these reports and found that despite the free education policy, schools continue to require pupils to wear uniforms.24 PTA fees, costs for books and materials, and the uniform requirement have held down attendance rates in Zambia and deny up to one quarter of school-aged children their right to education.

In the world’s most populous nation, China, official media reports stated in 2003 that twenty-seven million children nationwide—or some 10 percent of school-aged children—were unable to attend school,25 and in many areas, drop-out rates for children in junior high school exceed 30 percent.26

Although the Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China (CEL) requires nine years of compulsory education, bans tuition payments, and requires the state to establish a system of “grants-in-aid” to support the school attendance of poor children,27 many children are unable to afford schooling. Because local schools are prohibited from charging tuition fees, they often charge students for expenses that may include electricity, water, heat, desk and bench use, blackboards, exam reading, teachers’ bonuses, writing utensils, paper, books and workbooks, construction equipment, tree planting, brooms, bicycle parking and the right to transfer. In Hunan province, one school reportedly charged 25 yuan per student to pay the electric bill for computers, even though the school did not own a single computer.28

Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2004 and 2005 found that school fees and associated costs of education are a problem of particular urgency in many poor areas of rural China. A Tibetan woman from a farm family in Qinghai province complained that “[t]here is probably no one in the village who doesn’t have trouble sending their children to school because of the fees.”29  She reported, as did others, that the basic semester charge rises with the grade, resulting in many families sending their younger children to school at the expense of their older siblings. Another source from an agricultural village explained, “[t]here is no one who can afford to send more than one child to school.”30

Many poor parents in China, including those in ethnic nationality areas, face an impossible dilemma: they cannot afford to send their child to school because of school fees, nor can they afford the fines they may face if the child does not attend. Chinese law instructs local governments to “admonish and criticize” the parents or guardians of children who have not enrolled in school, and to adopt “effective measures” to encourage school attendance. Under this law, local authorities in many areas have imposed fines on parents whose children are not in school. One person interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that in grades one through three, fines for non-attendance amounted to 10 yuan (approximately US$1.20) a day.31  Another reported a one time fine of approximately 2,900 yuan (US$350);32 another said he was fined 73 yuan for dropping out after 6th grade.33 

In 2004 and 2005, China’s Ministry of Education announced several educational initiatives, including an increase in financial assistance to rural families to support school attendance, the expansion of a free textbook plan, and plans to eliminate “extraneous fees charged by individual schools.”34 However, Human Rights Watch has no information as to whether these initiatives have materialized. 

During a 2002 investigation in Burma (Myanmar), Human Rights Watch found that families were forced to pay school fees of up to 15,000 or 20,000 kyat (US$17.65-$23.53) per year as well as all of the material costs of uniforms, books, and school supplies for their children.35  In rural areas, they are also forced to pay the costs of building of schools and salaries for teachers. Many families pull their children out of primary school because they cannot afford the cost of the school fees and education materials, or because they need the child to work in the fields or to earn money. Although the government claims primary school enrolment rates of more than 90 percent, according to UNICEF, only 55 percent of children complete kindergarten and the first four grades.36

Khin Maung Than told us:

School fees were about 20,000 kyat for the whole year. That doesn’t include the uniform but it includes books. Early in the morning and in the evening after school we had to work for money. I left school when I was about nine years old, after finishing Second Standard, because my mother wasn’t healthy and my father was an alcoholic. I had to take care of my mother.

When he was eleven, Khin Maung Than was forced by recruiters to join the military.

Boys who have left school in Burma are particularly vulnerable to recruitment into the national army, which Human Rights Watch estimates has one of the largest numbers of child soldiers in the world. After leaving school, many children take up jobs selling food or small goods in the streets, or they find their way to larger cities in search of paying work. All of these children are frequently alone and vulnerable and become easy targets for recruiters, who frequently recruit children as young as eleven into military service.

In Togo, Human Rights Watch found that families who cannot afford to send their children to school are vulnerable to child traffickers, who may promise formal education, apprenticeships or employment to families that are eager to take a chance on better opportunities for their children.37 In 2002, annual school fees in Togo ranged from 4,000 to 13,000 CFA (between US $6 and $20) despite a statutory guarantee of free primary education. Many poor families survive on less than $1 a day, making schooling a significant expense, particularly for families with large numbers of children.

In Egypt, the constitution provides for free, compulsory basic education through grade nine. In practice, parents of children in public schools pay registration and health insurance fees, buy school uniforms and supplies, and often are pressured by underpaid teachers to pay for private tutoring so that their children succeed in school exams.38

Egyptian children interviewed by Human Rights Watch typically cited poverty as the primary reason they had never entered school or had left before completing basic education. This was particularly true of girls. Wafa, fifteen, said, “I’ve never gone to school because we have no money. No one in my family has gone to school. We are two boys and one girl. My father sells fruit.” Fifteen-year-old Ilham said, “My father didn’t want me to go to school. He said, ‘Instead of spending money on sending you to school it is better to spend the money taking care of all of you.’ Because we are seven children.”

In Egypt, children who are not enrolled in school are subject to arrest as habitual truants or as “vulnerable to delinquency,” even if they have committed no criminal offense. Of thirty-two children arrested by police and interviewed by Human Rights Watch, nine children had never attended school; nine had dropped out by the end of third grade; and seventeen had dropped out by the end of sixth grade.

One response to school fees is to waive them for poor children who cannot afford them. The advantages of this approach are that it theoretically targets the children that are most affected, and also mitigates the shortfall of income of eliminating school fees for all children. However, some research shows that those in most need of such programs—the poorest families—are often unaware of exemption schemes and do not know that they can apply, or how to do so.39  In South Africa, where schools often waive fees for children who are unable to pay, Human Rights Watch found that some rural teachers working on farm schools were unaware that a formal waiver system even existed.40 We also found that the ability of orphans and children lacking parental care to benefit from a waiver of school fees often depended on the presence of a community-based organization who would demand that the school allow them to enroll.41

Governments utilizing waivers for poor children must ensure that these programs are publicized widely and fully accessible to the children and families that need them most. They should take special steps to ensure that children without a parent or guardian benefit from such programs.

The UN Secretary-General, based on the findings of the UN Millennium Project, has recommended immediate action to eliminate school fees, identifying such measures as a high-impact “quick win” with the potential to generate major short-term gains and impact millions of lives.42  The major gains of such action have been clearly demonstrated in countries like Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, where the lifting of school fees resulted in significant increases in enrollment. These initiatives have greatly expanded children’s access to education. However, governments that eliminate fees must make concrete plans to off set lost income from school fees and anticipate increased enrollment by adding additional teachers, books and classrooms, in order to ensure that schools do not impose additional informal fees to make up for the lost income and that the quality of education does not deteriorate.


  • 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. 
  • Governments should promptly investigate cases of children being denied access to school or being expelled from school for inability to pay fees or for school supplies, including uniforms.  Ensure that appropriate enforcement authorities sanction schools and school officials that illegally levy school fees or turn away students.
  • Donor governments should provide long-term technical and financial support to governments that lift school fees in order to off-set lost revenue and ensure that education systems are prepared to meet increased demand.

[7] Raja Bentaouet Kattan and Nicholas Burnett, User Fees in Primary Education (Washington DC; World Bank, July 2004).

[8] See Human Rights Watch, Always on Call: Abuse and Exploitation of Child Domestic Workers in Indonesia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005).

[9] United Nations Development Program, Indonesia Human Development Report 2004 (New York: UNDP, 2004), p. 35.

[10] Ibid. 

[11] UN Commission on Human Rights, The Right to Education, Report Submitted by Katarina Tomaševski, Special Rapporteur in accordance with Commission Resolution 2002/23, Addendum, Mission to Indonesia July 1-7, 2002, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/2003/9/Add. 1, November 2002, para 23.

[12] Canadian International Development Agency, Papua New Guinea:  Facts at a Glance, (retrieved October 27, 2004).

[13] AusAID, PNG Education Sector Affordability Studies Services Order No. 09187/07, Paper 4, Overview of Financing the Education Sector, September 2003, pp. 34-35.  It should be noted that there is considerable disparity among sources for this data.

[14] See Human Rights Watch, “Making Their Own Rules”: Police Beatings, Rape, and Torture of Children in Papua New Guinea (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005).

[15] See Human Rights Watch, Future Forsaken: Abuses Against Children Affected by HIV/AIDS in India (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2004).

[16] PROBE Team, Public Report on Basic Education in India, pp 16, 105.

[17] World Bank, India: Policies to Reduce Poverty and Accelerate Sustainable Development, para 2.33.

[18] See Human Rights Watch: Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous Child Labor in El Salvador’s Sugarcane Cultivation (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2004).

[19] Oscar Godoy, El Salvador: Trabajo infantil doméstico: Una evaluación rápida (Geneva: International Labor Organization, International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour, 2002), p. 23.

[20] Human Rights Watch investigation in Bogotá and Cartagena, Colombia, July-August 2004; report forthcoming.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview, Altos de Cazucá, Cundinamarca, Colombia, July 30, 2004.

[22] See Human Rights Watch, Tainted Harvest: Child Labor and Obstacles to Organizing on Ecuador’s Banana Plantations (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2002).

[23] Human Rights Watch investigation conducted in Zambia in June and July 2004.

[24] The Ministry of Sport, Youth and Child Development, “Orphans and Vulnerable Children 2004 Situation Analysis,” Lusaka, Zambia, 2005, pp. 17-19.

[25] “China Struggles to Educate All Children,” Radio Free Asia, January 23, 2004, citing official Chinese media reports.

[26] See “China Experiences Rising School Dropout Rate,” available at; Education in China: A Short Introduction, China Labour Bulletin, available at; China: Many Rural Girls Left Out of School, Women’s Information Network News (Nov. 1, 1999) at

[27] Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China, adopted at the fourth session of the Sixth National People’s Congress, promulgated by Order No. 38 of the President of the People’s Republic of China on April 12, 1986, and effective as of July 1, 1986, art. 2.

[28] Tang Qixian, “Poor Families desperately Need Help in Education,” The World of Survey and Research 28 (10/2002), p. 28.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview, July 2004 (location withheld).

[30] Human Rights Watch interview, December 2004 (location withheld).

[31] Human Rights Watch interview, May 2004 (location withheld).

[32] Human Rights Watch interview, November 2004 (location withheld).

[33] Human Rights Watch interview, December 2004 (location withheld).

[34] See People’s Daily, “Nation to Ensure Compulsory Education for Rural Pupils,” January 27, 2004; “Government to Offer More Free Textbooks to Students in Poverty,” February 27, 2004; “China to Eliminate Extra Educational Fees,” January 28, 2005.

[35] See Human Rights Watch, “My Gun Was As Tall As Me”: Child Soldiers in Burma (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2002).

[36] Data from the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Department of Labor and UNFPA as reported in the Handbook on Human Resources Development Indicators 2000; UNICEF information reported to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF Rangoon in July 2002.

[37] See Human Rights Watch, Borderline Slavery: Child Trafficking in Togo (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003).

[38] See Human Rights Watch, Charged With Being Children: Egyptian Police Abuse of Children in Need of Protection (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003).

[39]  See Coalition for Health and Education Rights (CHER), User Fees: the right to education and health denied: A policy brief for the UN Special Session on Children, New York, May 2002. This paper was based on research in Guatemala, Nepal, Somaliland, Tanzania and Uganda. 

[40] Human Rights Watch interviews, Free State, South Africa, July 2005.

[41] Human Rights Watch interviews, Johannesburg, South Africa, June 2005.

[42] “In larger freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all,” Report of the Secretary-General, A/59/2005, March 21, 2005, paras 52 and Annex, para 5(h).

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