Ensuring accessible education

By Claire Thomas

Although human rights in essence date back centuries, if not millennia, human rights as a movement really began to take off in the 1960s and 1970s. MRG’s birth was therefore at a moment when many like-minded groups were founded and momentum was building in a range of areas. However, while the majority of human rights organizations were focusing on civil and political rights issues such as torture, political prisoners and freedom of expression, from its infancy MRG focused on access to socio-economic rights – in particular, the right to an equal, quality, appropriate education for all.

Socio-economic rights were, some argue, a casualty of the Cold War, with the Western powers keen to focus on civil rights, where their track record was generally somewhat better, whereas the Eastern bloc stressed full employment and universal access to public services such as education. However, between 1971 and 1991, MRG published no less than 25 titles that called for attention to equal rights to education for minorities and indigenous peoples. These covered a very wide range of peoples and situations, from indigenous Australians, the Chinese in South East Asia, Asians in East Africa, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Tibetans, Puerto Ricans in the US, Inuit in Canada, Saami in Lapland, peoples of Zimbabwe, and Armenians, Kurds and Palestinians, as well as  Bedouins of the Negev in Israel and the Occupied Territories. In addition, by 1991, MRG had published two in-depth studies on educational themes: Teaching about Prejudice and Language, Literacy and Minorities. In the 1980s MRG initiated a London’s schools education project producing a range of educational materials for the classroom which led on to the highly successful Voices project in the 1990s.

This research led, in due course, to extensive programmes on the ground that aimed to address the deep-seated inequalities faced by minority and indigenous communities in educational access. MRG specifically sought out opportunities to intervene in countries where discrimination was occurring to challenge bias and inequality in educational provision, ensuring that barriers that kept minority, indigenous and migrant children from attending or completing education were reduced or removed. This was borne out in part by the many testimonies from members of minority, indigenous and migrant communities to MRG that education represented the best opportunity for themselves and their children to escape the cycle of poverty and persecution.

Since the early 1990s, our research, campaigns and interventions have tackled everything from pointing out severe underfunding in nursery school provision in Turkana in Kenya, to documenting and addressing Batwa children’s regular experience of racist bullying and abuse from both fellow pupils and at times, teachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We worked with partners in Pakistan and Indonesia, as part of community/expert-led steering groups to develop and lobby for the adoption of curricula that treated all religious groups in those countries with respect. We worked hard to develop new materials that did not include religiously discriminatory content, but also educational resources in which all communities were represented and valued. We documented and lobbied when the closure of minority-language university provision in Macedonia contributed to an outbreak of violent conflict. And we have consistently supported the efforts of Roma to access quality education across Europe, including submitting evidence and arguments in precedent-setting cases on the issue of segregated schools.

One would think that the right to education would be a relatively straightforward demand, both for communities and duty bearers. But while it is true that a campaign for equal education may be more likely to succeed than a quota of seats in parliament for a minority community, for example, the power imbalances and complex political trade-offs that impact on all states mean that achieving a fair allocation of educational budgets to minority provinces, or removing hateful content from national curricula, is much harder than it perhaps ought to be. Even on the community side, the situation is not straightforward, with some members resisting mainstream schooling as an implicit threat to their own culture and knowledge – a position that is understandable given the long history of assimilation or denigration many have experienced. MRG was involved in a UNESCO world conference on adult education in July 1997, where it facilitated the participation of minority and indigenous representatives. One indigenous activist from the Chepang community in Nepal discussed the work of their organization, Seacow, focusing on how it illustrated the need to recognize communities’ different learning systems. Essentially his argument can be summarized as: ‘Why should I send my child to your school to learn your knowledge – billions of people in the world can read and write. Our knowledge of the forest, its plants and animals, is unique and precious – if my children don’t learn it, it will be lost to humanity for ever.’ This kind of input has made MRG think very carefully about seeing education, particularly teaching in majority community knowledge and languages, as a panacea or a universal solution that we can adopt uncritically. This gives rise to a pause and acknowledgement (rarely voiced) that education can ‘do harm’ as well as good. What we need to do, then, is look not only at the extent to which marginalized communities can access public education but also the degree to which that education reflects and includes their own values, needs and aspirations.

Until today MRG has maintained its focus on education: current programmes include efforts to hold the devolved county governments in Kenya accountable for how they spend education budgets. In other countries, too, our work continues to enable minorities to access education fully and equally – most recently, with Roma mediators and local authorities in Ukraine. Where possible, we also seek to challenge boundaries and explore innovative methods to improve educational access, even in intractable and difficult contexts. One project in the troubled provincial capital of Quetta in Pakistan established ‘Bard of Peace’ clubs in schools, with the students taking up the role of ‘Bard’ and using poetry and art to generate critical thinking and reflection among pupils about religious diversity and respect for all. The students in the clubs went on to develop performances for other schools and community members on issues of social inclusion, respect for all religions and equality within Pakistan’s society.

Photo: Internally displaced children learning in Abkhazia, Georgia / Agnieszka Zielonka