Opinion + Voices

Children’s right to education: Where does the world stand?

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Children attend outdoor school
istock

Children attend an outdoor school in Agra, India

Jody Heymann

Dr. Jody Heymann is dean of the Fielding School of Public Health and founding director of the World Policy Analysis Center. Co-authors Aleta Sprague, writer/editor, and Kristen Savage, senior policy analyst, are also with the center. Their op-ed appeared Nov. 6 in the Huffington Post. This blog post is the first of a four-part series from the center, presenting new data and examining progress toward securing children's rights around the world 25 years since the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted at the United Nations.

In Mexico, one out of every two teenagers won't finish high school. In India, only a third of students get their high school diploma. Even in the U.S., around 5500 high schoolers will drop out before the end of the day.

What do all these countries have in common? Under their national laws, dropping out of high school is perfectly legal.

That’s not the case everywhere. In Korea, Germany, New Zealand and over two dozen other countries around the world, completing secondary school is required by law — setting kids up for success as adults.

This is but one example of how countries policy choices about education shape their children’s futures. Twenty-five years ago this month, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which, among other things, calls on every country to enact legislation that will reduce both social and financial barriers to staying in school. Today, the CRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, with 194 parties (the United States, Somalia, and South Sudan are the lone holdouts).

Still, 25 years after committing to protect every child's right to education, have these 194 governments followed through on their promise?

When it comes to primary school, the short answer is the overwhelming majority have, but not all: Primary education is both free and compulsory in 90 percent of countries that have ratified the CRC. Among the remaining 10 percent, girls are more likely to suffer the consequences: when families can only afford to send one child to school, sons often take precedence, exacerbating existing gender gaps in access to education and economic opportunity. According to UNICEF, 31 million girls of primary school age are out of school.

Furthermore, nearly a quarter of countries that ratified the CRC charge tuition for at least some portion of secondary school; 14 percent impose fees the first year. This greater barrier to secondary in part reflects less targeted global commitments: While the CRC explicitly obliges parties to make primary education free and compulsory, it only encourages free secondary school (though it does require that secondary be “available and accessible to every child”). The fees are affected by country income but driven by political will. There are countries in every income group that have managed to make secondary school tuition free, including 38 percent of low income, 78 percent of middle income and 94 percent of high income. Nearly half of the countries that charge school fees for secondary school devote less than four percent of their GDP to education — firmly below the global average expenditure.

Yet while removing tuition barriers is an essential step toward increasing school enrollment, it’s not enough alone. Strengthening access to education also requires strengthening children’s other rights — such as protection from child labor and child marriage. Without shielding children from these other conditions that interfere with their right to education, countries will continue to fall short of their CRC commitments.

Today, nearly 168 million children are still engaged in labor worldwide. Children working long hours on school days are much more likely to drop out of school. CRC States parties have made notable progress toward protecting younger children; 75 percent prohibit children ages 14 and younger from working more than six hours on a school day. However, protections decline sharply at age 16; only 7 percent of countries that ratified the CRC extend the same protections to 16-year-olds, creating yet another barrier to completing secondary school.

Similarly, while rates of child marriage have fallen over the past two decades, this practice continues to disproportionately harm girls and seriously jeopardize their education.

Despite their stated commitments to upholding children’s access to schooling and healthy development, 21 percent of countries that ratified the CRC let girls be married legally with parental consent at age 15. Married girls are much less likely to complete school and far more vulnerable to early pregnancy and health risks.

Passing laws to fully implement the CRC is a critical first step toward ensuring an education for all the world's children — and reducing gaps in access between boys and girls. By making data on these laws widely accessible at worldpolicyforum.org, we hope that policymakers, researchers, and citizens can identify the successes and gaps in their own countries. Further, our comparative data reveal that guaranteeing the right to education is feasible across both regions and income groups. Whether or not it’s too late for the millions of youth who will forego secondary education this year, it’s not too late for policymakers worldwide to make good on the promises they made 25 years ago.

More columns in this series:

85 million children work in dangerous conditions: Are governments fulfilling their promise to prevent this? Jody Heymann with co-authors Aleta Sprague and Nicolas de Guzman Chorny, published Nov. 13.

The legal loopholes that perpetuate child marriage. Jody Heymann with co-authors Aleta Sprague and Megan Arthur, published Nov. 18.

Strengthening children’s rights through better data. Jody Heymann with co-authors Aleta Sprague and Amy Raub, published Nov. 20.

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