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Girls education through a human rights lens

Working papers

If rights-based, education can be a means to attain gender equality. Otherwise, it tends to transmit gender inequality to the next generation. Rights-based education is a passkey for full and equal enjoyment of all human rights, which adds a qualitative dimension to the existing global focus on quantitative targets. At the turn of the millennium, global strategies converged around the goal of eliminating gender disparities in basic education by the year 2005. Statistically speaking, this target will not be attained. Moreover, previous experiences have shown that it is easier to attain gender parity than to sustain it. Human rights can help in sustaining progress by enforcing equal rights of girls and inforcing the corresponding governmental obligations.This background paper for ODI's event series on Human Rights and Poverty Reduction investigates these issues.

An illustration of what can happen without human rights protection is the case of Tatu Shabani, who was sentenced in 2003 to six months in prison for not attending school. Tatu had been a pupil of Mkuyuni primary school in Morogoro, in Tanzania. She was expelled after she became pregnant: pregnancy was a disciplinary offence. After her expulsion, she could no longer go to school. Tatu was in a ‘Catch-22’ situation, in breach of the law on compulsory school attendance but unable to comply with that law. It is not clear how Tatu’s case will figure in education statistics but, legally, she became a delinquent by the mere fact that she had become pregnant as a primary school pupil. Pregnancy ended both her childhood and her education.

This case highlights the rationale behind a human rights approach to education, that of dealing with obstacles beyond – not only within – education. There has been an endless stream of policies and statements on what can be done. Human rights spell out what should be done, using as a yardstick global minimum standards that most states in the world have accepted. Thus, human rights complement and strengthen development priorities. The key features of human rights law are outlined in Table 1, through a comparison with the MDGs as the best known blueprint for prioritising development efforts.

Katarina Tomasevski