Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Education Saves Lives!

14 January 2014

Let’s remember on International Human Rights Day why we must realize the right to education

by Shaharazad Abuel-Ealeh, Global Campaign for Education

This blog was originally published on the Education for All Blog of the Global Partnership for Education here.

December 10, 2013 marked the 20th anniversary of the International Human Rights Day, reminding us of the global commitment made by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Civil society campaigners in the education sector have a rich history of international commitment to the right to education: not only was it enshrined in international law by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but states have also continued to reinforce this commitment – notably in the 1990 Jomtien Declaration and again in the 2000 Dakar Framework for Action on Education For All. But there is long list of other international conventions and declarations which place the right to education as fundamental to the realization of other rights, including:

  • The 1960 UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education (CADE)
  • The 1966 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
  • The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  • The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  • The 1989 ILO Convention 169, Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention
  • The 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (i).

Every girl, boy, woman and man is entitled to education

Since 1948, and with each progressive commitment, the conditions for the delivery of the right to education have been clearly articulated: education must be available and accessible to all; it must be provided at no cost (at least at primary level) and without discrimination; education must be of good quality; and education must respond and contribute to its social context.

States have a legal and moral responsibility to guarantee that this right is met – and denying the right to education has a huge impact on the ability to realize other rights and exercise human freedom.

To some extent, these commitments have been acted upon: since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were established in 2000, tens of millions more children are in school, there are fewer non-literate youth and adults, and in many countries we’re seeing increased domestic investment in education.. So in many ways, education is a success story: between 2000 and 2011, global primary school enrollment grew from 83% to 90%, and the number of out-of-school children dropped by almost 50% – from 102 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2011. Gender parity in primary school enrollments worldwide has been achieved, albeit well after the original deadline of 2005.


Inequalities in education remain

But behind these headline figures there lie some vast inequalities, and we know that progress is stagnating. There remain serious threats to fulfilling the right to education: We have just two years left until the 2015 deadline for the MDGs. Honoring the commitment of states to education must be fundamental to any development framework beyond 2015.

While overall progress has been made in enrollments since 2000, the number of out-of-school children of primary age fell by only 3 million between 2008 and 2011. The number of children out of school at both primary and lower secondary level stands at 127 million – and it is estimated that up to a quarter of a billion children who are in the classroom are leaving school without the ability to read or write, even after four years of primary education. Despite the increased enrollments, girls are less likely than boys to complete their primary education. Progression to secondary school for girls falls far behind that of boys. To make matters worse, girls are still facing discrimination even when they stay in school.


Education aid is decreasing

Aid to education has been dramatically reduced in the wake of the economic crisis faced by almost every donor country, and the challenge to find new donors remains a struggle. A recent GCE report shows that donor governments disproportionately cut education aid. Basic education in low-income countries is particularly hard hit. At current levels, there remains a total annual gap of $38 billion to achieve education for all – this is equivalent to just 2% of the world’s military spending,(ii) or one month’s revenue for the world’s largest company(iii).

While many governments in low-income countries have made major strides forward in their domestic allocations to education, they are struggling to find replacement funding for withdrawing donors. There is a real and urgent need to increase the domestic financing base for education through the development of fair tax systems. A GCE briefing on domestic financing outlines the potentially massive gains to education that could be achieved in this way.


Education reduces poverty

If states meet their obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the right to education and making increased investments, we could all reap huge rewards.

Education is not only a fundamental human right, it is also a vital enabling right.

  • Improved education is responsible for half of the global reduction in child deaths in the last 40 years, having a far greater impact than economic growth in reducing preventative deaths.(iv)

  • Education spreads prosperity and reduces poverty. It is estimated that if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, then 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty. This is equivalent to a 12% cut in global poverty.(v) On top of this, each additional year of average schooling can increase the GDP by up to 1% per year. An analysis based on data from the International Adult Literacy Survey showed that at the national level, the long run effects of investment in literacy are about three times as important to economic growth as investment.(vi)

  • High-quality, freely available education improves women’s and girls’ chances of realizing their rights. Women earn more when they are educated: studies suggest that higher levels of education have greater economic returns for women than men. In India, for instance, a recent study found that the wage benefit for women with secondary education was double that for men.(vii)

  • Education has a critical role to play in active citizenship and political participation: it empowers individuals, broadens critical thinking and enables them to exercise their citizenship rights. Research in sub-Saharan Africa has shown that voters with a primary education were 1.5 times more likely to support democracy than those with no education; voters who had completed secondary school were three times more likely.(viii)


Education helps enabling other human rights

These are not the sole benefits, but they provide a compelling case for ensuring that the right to a quality, public education is realized. Education plays a huge role in enabling many other human rights, and there is clear evidence that education does save lives. This is why the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) believes that there must be a specific goal on education in a global post-2015 development framework alongside the continuation of the Education For All agenda after 2015, and that both must be grounded in a human rights perspective.

The education sector is fortunate that clear and unambiguous commitments to education already exist, reinforced in international treaties and frameworks and national legislation. What is needed now is the global political and financial commitment to improved access, inclusion, quality and equity to fulfill the right to quality education and ensure sustainable development for all.


December 10, 2013 also sees the international memorial service for one of the world’s greatest human rights campaigners, Nelson Mandela, in Johannesburg, South Africa. We at the Global Campaign for Education had the very great fortune to enjoy the support of Nelson Mandela and his family, for which we remain honored and grateful. We stand alongside the many campaigners who were motivated and strengthened by the towering Madiba. His belief in education as a powerful tool for change is one that all education campaigners share. It is our duty to continue the important work of ensuring the right to education for everyone.

The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) is a movement bringing together NGOs; teacher unions; child rights activists; parents’ associations; organisations of women, disabled people and other marginalised groups; youth associations; community organisations and other civil society organisations. GCE members include international and regional organisations and networks, and national civil society coalitions in nearly 100 countries.



(i) Beyond 2015(2013).Global Thematic Consultation on Education and the Post-­2015 Development Framework: Making Education For All a reality.

(ii) World military expenditure totalled 1.75 trillion in 2012 – Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,, accessed August 2013

(iii) Wal-Mart form 10-K, FY 2013:

(iv) Publicly available censuses and nationally representative surveys of respondents’ educational attainment. This data was used to investigate the relation between child mortality and educational attainment among women of reproductive age (15—44 years) over time at the country level, using a model including other major determinants of child mortality that are not on the pathway between women’s education and child health—namely, income per person and HIV seroprevalence.

(v) UNESCO. 2011. Education Counts: Towards the Millennium Development Goals. (accessed 24 June 2013).

(vi) Coulombe S, Tremblay J-F, Marchand S. 2004. Literacy scores, human capital and growth across fourteen OECD countries. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. Cat. No. 89-552-MIE, no. 11.

(vii) Mammen, Kristin and Christina Paxson. 2000. “Women’s work and economic development.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 14(4): 141-164

(viii) UIS (2012) Reaching Out-Of-School Children is Crucial for Development. UIS Fact Sheet June 2012, No.18.


Picture above:  Hidassie School. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. November 2012. Credit: GPE/Midastouch


This blog was originally published on the Education for All Blog of the Global Partnership for Education here.

Shaharazad Abuel-Ealeh (also known as Sherry) joined the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) in January 2010 to oversee the delivery of GCE’s 'Education For All' campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Africa. She is responsible for the delivery of GCE’s external communications strategy as well as communications across GCE’s 120-strong membership in 96 countries. Previous to GCE, Sherry worked in the UK as Deputy Director for Research and Communications at a UK charity with a focus on supporting disadvantaged young people stay in education and realize their career aspirations.