Ripples of change through human rights education

The stories of change are innumerable. A young Dalit boy in Tamil Nadu challenges an upper caste woman cursing her daughter-in-law for giving birth to a girl. Teachers across borders in Ireland and Northern Ireland move beyond cultural particularities towards the common goal of educating their students about human rights. Government ministries in South Africa reach into schools to ensure children have access to their rights through their education system. Music and arts make human rights accessible to schools in Guyana and Uganda .

Fighting racism through human rights education in schools. © UN Photo/Jean-Marc FERRESuch are the ripple effects of human rights education, according to panelists from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe who spoke on the sidelines of the Durban Review Conference at the United Nations in Geneva .

The importance of human rights education at the national level has been highlighted as a tool to combat discrimination in both the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action of 2001 and the outcome document of the present conference. The World Programme for Human Rights Education (2005-ongoing) provides a framework for its national implementation.

“Education can perpetuate social prejudices and discrimination,” said Henri Tiphagne of People's Watch in India . “But we use human rights education as a tool to fight against discrimination and xenophobia and to create a democratic culture.”

Mr. Tiphagne described how giving children three years of formal education in human rights took the awareness from campus to family and family to neighbourhood. So far, schools in 19 states in India have adopted a human rights education programme into their curriculum and more than 150,000 children and 3,200 teachers have been trained.

Lynn van der Elst of The Media in Education Trust Africa described how human rights has been integrated into the formal and informal curricula at schools in South Africa and how this has brought schools, parents, communities and government departments closer together.

“The strategy is for schools to be inclusive centres of learning, care and support,” she said.

“All subjects are infused with the principles and practices of social and environmental justice and human rights and are sensitive to issues of diversity such as poverty, inequality, race, gender, language, age, disability. A separate subject, Life Orientation, is dedicated to informing and sensitizing learners to respect for others, tolerance, justice, etc. Then, as part of the non-formal curriculum, we have integrated service delivery days, when schools are used as nodes for the delivery of integrated services – health, social, recreational.”

Gloria Geria of Kyambogo University in Uganda went on to describe how students go out into the community and raise awareness after they are trained in human rights. As a result, she said, schools and communities stand to benefit.

Merle Mendonca of the Guyana Human Rights Association similarly told how the synergies between formal and non-formal human rights education programmes had positive effects on the schools and communities beyond the classroom. She said training teachers in human rights education developed their confidence in addressing complex issues. But she was also mindful of the challenges of sustaining schools' commitments to such programmes in the long-term.

Such challenges were also acknowledged by Calin Rus of the Intercultural Institute of Timisoara in Romania . Mr. Rus added that the best results are obtained when school principals and teams of teachers are involved and when networking and supportive monitoring opportunities are built in.

The crucial role of teachers in human rights education was highlighted by Avril Hall-Callaghan of the Ulster Teachers' Union . She described the pivotal role of the teachers' unions in the United Kingdom in initiating and developing the curricula there in close partnership with governmental and non-governmental actors.

Panel moderator Elena Ippoliti of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights remarked on how so many of the examples cited began with a pilot project and grew exponentially across a country or even a region, showing how a single step can take us a long way.

April 2009