Most children, who are still outside the ambit of schooling, are victims of child labour, migration of parents, trafficking, acute poverty and other such issues. We need to bring them into the system
The Right to Education has now been accepted globally. Sustained efforts are being made nationally and internationally to bring every child within the fold of universal education. The global literacy rate of 86.2 per cent bodes well. But this great achievement also exposes the challenge of educating 57 million primary children who remain out of school. In actual practice, this number could indeed be higher. The task ahead — to bring these children to school — is really tough and has also been articulated among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals identified by the UN General Assembly in 2015, to be achieved by 2030.
Education is included as the SDG-4. The global promise is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all.” Considerable success has been made in bringing children under the fold of universal education. Making provisions for schooling is necessary but that alone is not sufficient. The Sustainable Development Goals Report of 2018 indicated that more than half of children and adolescents in schools worldwide are not meeting minimum proficiency standards in reading and mathematics. It also indicated that re-focussed efforts are needed to improve the quality of education. Disparities in education along the lines of gender, urban-rural location and other dimensions still run deep. More investments in education infrastructure are required in less developed countries:
“At the global level, participation rate in early childhood and primary education was 70 per cent in 2016, up from 63 per cent in 2010. Lowest rates were found in sub-Saharan Africa (41 per cent) and Northern Africa and Western Asia (52 per cent). An estimated 617 million children and adolescents of primary and lower secondary school age worldwide — 58 per cent of that age group — are not achieving minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics. In 2016, an estimated 85 per cent of primary school teachers world-wide were trained; the proportion was only 71 per cent for Southern Asia and 61 per cent for sub-Saharan Africa. In the same year, only 34 per cent of primary schools in LDCs had electricity and less than 40 per cent were equipped with basic hand-washing facilities.”
At present, sincere efforts are being made by practically every nation to reach the target of ensuring elementary education to every child and provide equality of opportunity of access and success to each one of them. It is a tough task for countries that are facing acute economic crisis and are facing severe deficiencies in infrastructure and competent human resources. UNESCO, too, is making significant efforts to assist, through international collaboration, exchange of experiences and making human expertise available wherever required. Challenges confront the policy-makers at the national level, as also the agencies that coordinate and monitor educational developments globally in context of the right to education.
The nature of challenge, to bring the remaining children within the fold of education, changes as countries move ahead on the ladder to total literacy. In India, in spite of all the problems, the constitutional directive to provide free and compulsory education to all children ‘till they attain 14 years of age’ was indeed a very bold step. This set the tone. During the initial stages, the priority task was to convince parents how essential education was to the future of their children, particularly girls. Issues like gender bias, segregation prevalent on caste lines, social hierarchies and traditional practices had to be confronted with considerable poise and sensitivity. Slowly, every group of the populace realised the advantages of sending their wards to schools.
Consequently, a stage has been reached wherein the system no more needs convincing the parents — all of them not only want their children to get educated but education of good quality in good schools. There are certain other factors that still make things tough in dealing with the enrolment of children in the bracket above 90 per cent enrolment. As India marched ahead from a literacy rate of about 20 to the present of over 75, it has realised that it requires far greater efforts to bring the remaining children within the fold of education than was necessary in earlier years. In fact, in this bracket, parents have little role as external and undesirable factors have taken over the fate of their children.
Most children, who are still outside the ambit of schooling, are victims of child labour, migration of parents, child trafficking, acute poverty and other such issues. Considerable attention is being given to liberate children from the clutches of circumstances that force them to become victims of unsocial and nefarious practices. While estimates differ, globally, over 200 million children are engaged in child labour. In India, estimates vary from 12 to 60 million. Even in the most posh areas of New Delhi, one could see children selling small items, obviously being managed and monitored by certain unscrupulous elements. The same is witnessed at railway stations. It is a well-known fact that forced to work in dirty, dangerous and unhealthy conditions, making match sticks, tobacco products and fire-crackers, children are invariably exposed to health hazards that could even be fatal. Many suffer on many counts, including emotional deprivation and malnutrition.
Further, deficient nutrition is a major concern in India. Around 3,000 children die every day due to malnutrition. Globally, three million children die of malnutrition every year. Overall, India suffers from “serious levels of hunger” and is ranked 103 amongst 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index. Obviously this is a very challenging situation, implications of which are most significant for children and their proper growth and right to education.
Considerable concern is being expressed globally for migrant children who are forced to leave their ancestral lands. A majority of them are forced to leave their home and hearth because of hunger, poverty, ethnic cleansing, racial discrimination, fundamentalism, insecurity and violence, among other problems.
Recently, UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report brought to fore details of the conditions that children face in their new circumstance. It states: “The right of these children to quality education, even if increasingly recognised on paper, is challenged daily in classrooms and school yards, and denied outright by a few Governments…In the two years since the landmark New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, refugees have missed 1.5 billion days of school.” The issue is indeed alarming. Hence, the 2019 report focusses on “migrant, displacement and education” and as expected, highlights the need for additional resources to countries that host most migrants and their children. Problems are well-known as they invariably arise in multi-cultural classroom everywhere. Most important is the right of the child to education in his own mother tongue. He/she also needs familiarity with his/her own culture, heritage and history. Even under tough conditions, initiatives must not get dampened. Every effort must be made by all concerned to put their best foot forward to support requirements of these groups of children.
It is in this light that the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, said: “Everyone loses when the education of migrants and refugees is ignored... increased classroom diversity, while challenging for teachers, can also enhance respect for diversity and an opportunity to learn from others.” A huge amount of Government resources as also from donors will be necessary as trends in immigrants show increase in activity in the near future.
Now let’s revert back to the national scene. Migrant children can be mapped in practically every major city of our country. Very often, one learns about migrants from one State being vandalised by elements of the host province, resulting in avoidable misery. One must remember how ‘Maharashtra for Maharashtrians’ kept the migrants from south India on their toes. Similarly, the Hindi-speaking population in Mumbai from north India frequently become the target of parochial pride, resulting in loss of personal and public property, unnecessary disruption of professional pursuits and negative impact on the education of children.
Just a couple of months ago, a criminal incident that was highly deplorable led to attacks on the migrant population in Gujarat. There are several other encouraging signs as well. Kailash Satyarthi shared the Nobel Peace prize for his work on liberating lakhs of children from bonded labour. There have been numerous local-level initiatives that have been bringing excellent results in their respective areas. Sandip Singh runs a voluntary organisation in Gurugram. Singh began this initiative based upon his sensitive observation of children from Rajasthan who were loitering around.
After a decade, Singh has successfully changed the lives of several thousands of children by providing them education. He was quietly working on his own when others came to help him voluntarily. Today, his organisation — School Aapke Dwaar — is one major attraction for children in slum areas as also for their parents. One could find several such initiatives at individual and social levels. All they need is encouragement and support from the people. But India needs an effective organisation to deal with the issues of children suffering on several counts, some of which have been mentioned in this article. The efficacy, or otherwise of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, needs a thorough independent scrutiny.
(The writer is the Indian Representative on the Executive Board of UNESCO)