Discrimination, government failure keep millions of children out of school, report shows

School doors have been slammed on millions of children worldwide because of discriminatory laws and practices and the failure of governments to make sure would-be students get an education, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Friday.

Nearly 124 million children and adolescents, most of them between the ages of 6 and 15, are not attending school, the report concludes, citing information from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

“Governments have left children behind,” said Elin Martinez, a Human Rights Watch children’s rights researcher. “In many cases research has shown it comes down to the basic failure to implement and uphold provisions of the right to education.”

The report, titled “The Education Deficit: Failures to Protect and Fulfill the Right to Education in Global Development Agendas,” based its conclusions on its research in more than 40 countries over nearly 20 years. The report says many governments seem to lack the will to deliver education to children, sometimes failing to make school compulsory or even monitor school attendance.

In millions of cases, the cost to attend school and meet other requirements such as buying books stood as a barrier.


In the Democratic Republic of Congo, many children are forced to live and beg on the streets, driven there by the inability of their parents or guardians to pay for school.

Discrimination and school violence are also factors blocking children’s education, according to the report.

In Nepal, the report finds that teachers adhere to social or cultural traditions, such as denigrating people from lower castes, which “perpetuates discrimination in classrooms.” In some schools in India children from lower castes, once called “untouchables,” were made to sit separately in classrooms, or had to wait to eat their free school lunches until other students had eaten, according to the report. And schools predominantly catering to Palestinian Arab and Bedouin children receive less funding and are often overcrowded and understaffed.

The report also documents discrimination by government officials against children with disabilities, particularly in China and South Africa. In Russia and Serbia, the report says, children with disabilities “are disproportionately institutionalized, often with access only to low-quality education, if any.”

Girls face some of the greatest challenges, including sexual abuse and violence by teachers and peers, abusive virginity testing, inadequate sanitation and private restrooms, and policies that exclude pregnant girls from school, Martinez said.

Childhood marriage often results in girls leaving school early or not attending at all. The report cites Nepal, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Sudan and Bangladesh as some of the prime offenders.

High- and middle-income countries are far from blameless, the report says.

In the U.S., for example, around two-thirds of LGBT students reported being bullied in school and about a third said they skipped class or dropped out of school because of the harassment.

The report also highlights the detrimental effect of global crises and armed conflict on children’s access to education. For example, the seizure of schools for military use has kept millions of children in Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories, Ukraine and Yemen out of the classroom.

The report urges governments to make some basic changes by ensuring that primary education is free and compulsory, eliminating discriminatory policies or regulations and accommodating the needs of girls and children with disabilities.

Jo Bourne chief of education for UNICEF, said that while “governments play the most important role in terms of making sure all children within their border have an education,” and governments are “duty bearers” of education, she agreed “they could do more,” such as monitoring school attendance, allocating more money for education and implementing policies that ensure children’s safety in school.

Bourne is hopeful that a new Education Cannot Wait fund, launched during the recent World Humanitarian Summit, will help tackle the education deficit for children in the most desperate need of support. It seeks to raise $3.85 billion from about 100 donors in the public and private sectors over the next five years, according to the United Nations.


For the record

June 13, 11:03 a.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the education fund as the Education Can’t Wait fund. It is the Education Cannot Wait fund.


“The fund aims to provide quality education in a safe learning environment for 75 million children living through emergencies who are either already out of school or are not receiving an adequate education,” Bourne said. “We must invest in children’s futures at a time when they need it most.”

The report also calls on donors, including multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education, to “uphold human rights standards and not compromise on abuses that leave children and adolescents out of school.”

According to the Global Education Partnership, it will cost about 8 billion a year to educate all children affected by conflict and crises.

On Thursday, the Global Partnership for Education, which since 2002 has invested $4.4 billion in the education sector of more than 60 developing countries, launched its funding strategy for the next five years.

“It’s performance based with the idea that this helps governments improve their education system,” said Alice Albright, the organization’s chief executive officer. “When we fund, we look for certain standards. Education programs have to be robust. Funding has to be made available for education. Countries have to sign up to meet challenges that are transformative.”

The organization works with its partner countries to implement the grants and tracks each country’s progress, Albright said.

“It is not a punishing type of approach, it’s a partnership type of approach,” Albright added. “We think it’s the best way of achieving accountability, when everybody is involved.”

Martinez, the HRW researcher, said that although resources are an important part of the solution, “it goes beyond governments and national actors receiving more money.”

“Funding needs to be tied to the right type of policies at a local and national level to ensure governments fulfill their obligation of ensuring all children have access to education,” she said.