‘Free Education for All Children’ Initiative Steadily Gains Pace Globally

The UN Human Rights Council Puts Legal Guarantee for Free Education on Its Agenda

This year, the UN’s foremost human rights body in Geneva is poised for a potential breakthrough, with increasing optimism for the formal acknowledgment of every child’s entitlement to free education from pre-primary through secondary levels.

On March 20, the Dominican Republic, alongside several other nations including Luxembourg, Sierra Leone, Colombia, Panama, Nauru, Bulgaria, and Romania, together with advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch, Plan International, and Girls Not Brides, will lead discussions at the Human Rights Council. Their focus will be on the urgent necessity for a new legal framework emphasizing the crucial link between free pre-primary and secondary education and human rights, with a special emphasis on empowering girls and women.

Globally, nearly half of all children remain un-enrolled in pre-primary education, with only 2 in 5 children in low- and lower-middle-income countries participating in such programs. Moreover, only 45 percent of children completed secondary school in 2021. For many children, the financial burden of pre-primary and secondary education acts as a significant impediment to attendance. The continued lack of universal access to education perpetuates poverty and inequality on a global scale, hindering societal advancement and development.

Nevertheless, numerous low- and middle-income countries are making substantial progress towards providing more widespread free education. Nations like Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Nepal, and Sierra Leone, among at least 110 countries worldwide, have enacted legislation guaranteeing at least one year of free pre-primary education and free secondary education.

However, international human rights law has not kept abreast of this advancement. For instance, the UN’s children’s rights treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, does not mandate states to provide free secondary education with the same immediacy as primary education, nor does it explicitly address early childhood education. This inconsistency is fostering increasing global support for embedding these rights within a new legal framework, namely, a fourth optional protocol to the convention. Consequently, new international legislation could drive further adoption of free education in nations where fees are still imposed.

It is crucial that other states unite behind this endeavour. Together, they can ensure that every child has access to learning and can realize their potential, establishing the foundation for a fairer and more equitable future.

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