As I read a news piece about a six-year-old girl raped in her school, I must admit my confidence in human rights and human beings is shaken. This crime in India adds to a series of violations of girls and women’s right to education that only in the past three months has included the kidnapping of 200+ Nigerian school-girls in Nigeria (whose fate is still unknown) and the increase in child marriage of Syrian refugee girls (adding to the damage of their precarious education). How many more children have to suffer before their education is effectively upheld as a human right? I ask myself. Are we getting so used to violations, denials and distortions of rights that we are unable to go beyond a virtual, noisy yet feeble, reaction? What does it take to move from disapproval, or even shock and outrage, to concrete action?
The moral conscience of our global society is upset, voices speak up, millions of people mobilise, but it then all ends up in a black hole after a few days or weeks. Very little, if any, sustained follow-up, monitoring, or accountability occurs. It is actually quite telling that one of the very few ‘authorities’ who have publicly kept following the case of the Nigerian girls is Malala Yousafzai, herself one of the most emblematic victims of attacks on education. It seems to me that responsibility slowly fades away and fatalism sneaks in. Seeing weak responses or even inaction from those who have the power and duty to redress the situation, I wonder if the human rights system as we know it today is not fit to deal with such blatant violations of the right to education.
To my rescue comes an unexpected invitation to sit on a panel of experts at the UN CEDAW Half-day of General Discussion on girls and women’s right to education. I am tasked with a keynote address on rights through education, including access to equal employment opportunities and participation in public life, perhaps the most aspirational of all the topics presented that day. I offer some suggestions, but most importantly I listen very carefully to each and every contribution, trying to clear my doubts. And so it is with renewed hope and conviction that I write this post. The discussion confirms that the way is still long and paved with challenges, but it also persuades me that three factors can, and I hope will, support us in mobilising action and bringing about change: awareness, participation and inspiration.
We have clearly made enormous progress on exposing violations through research, monitoring and advocacy. The data and narratives offered by all the panellists show deep awareness of both successful outcomes and remaining challenges, in all areas: from quantity to quality, from content to attitudes, from stereotypes to transformation. Contributions by governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental representatives are equally clear in highlighting increased responsiveness to old and new obstacles to girls and women’s right to education, be they legislative shortcomings on the link between education and marriage, or negative effects of privatisation or even just the lack of separate toilet facilities. This solid and widespread awareness must now translate into concrete action and tangible solutions: from problem-pointing to problem-solving.
Which leads me to the second factor: meaningful participation. The fact that the event attracted keen interest from all quarters and offered high quality submissions amplifying multiple voices in a unified demand for more sustained efforts, especially in supporting legislative measures with societal change and clearer accountability mechanisms, shows how decisive a wide-ranging involvement can be. Examples in the discussion also demonstrate that, when girls and women take part in decision-making, results are efficient and sustainable. Participation of all stake-holders is not only a basic human rights principle but also an increasingly successful practice that should be maintained and continuously improved. That this is also happening at the core of the human rights international system of treaty bodies, by nature the heart of monitoring and dialogue with State authorities, can only be another encouraging sign of hope and willingness to step up efforts.
Surely it is not an easy process and local, national, regional and international systems of protection for the right to education may well be burdensome, slow or frustrating. However, complications can be overcome by taking inspiration from difficulties and looking creatively at possible solutions. In challenges lie opportunities; complexity in fact offers a multitude of entry points for change. The two speeches by Ms. Hanna Godefa, UNICEF National Ambassador to Ethiopia, and Ms. Mariam Khalique, one of Malala’s teachers, speak volumes on how to break injustice and inequality, on “how to think, plan and act differently” against all odds. And examples from States such as Slovenia, Colombia or Sierra Leone offer further tangible encouragement.
So, it may be that the human rights system as we know it today is still not fit to deal in the most effective way with girls and women’s right to education. Nonetheless, it does set standards by which States must abide, it does offer clear guidance and in a few cases it is indeed listening and willing to act, as indicated by Ms. Barbara Bailey, Chair of the CEDAW Working Group on girls and women’s right to education, when she invited all participants to help the Committee “give vision a form and make this vision reality”.
Speaking of vision, I would like to close with a quote by Ms. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also present at the meeting: “if one wing is broken, no one can fly”. It immediately reminded me of a talk by Malala’s father, himself an educator. Asked about what he did to make his daughter so strong, he answered “Do not ask me what I did; ask me what I did not. I did not clip her wings." What a powerful example of awareness, participation and inspiration!
Angela Melchiorre is a member of the Network of Advisers for the Right to Education Project. Based in Venice- Italy, she enjoys designing and delivering - both in person and through blended learning - educational activities that combine human rights theory and practice. Currently freelance, she previously worked as Programme Director of the European Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Democratisation at EIUC in Venice, Italy; Research Coordinator for the Right to Education Project; Lecturer in Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; and as Human Rights Expert for the Italian Permanent Mission at the UN in Geneva and New York. Angela is the author of “At what age... are school-children employed, married and taken to court?” As a spin-off from that research, she wrote her PhD thesis on the minimum age for marriage and the CRC.