International Youth Day: Access to Education is a Right Denied to Many Children


International Youth Day: Access to Education is a Right Denied to Many Children

Today, on International Youth Day, PEN International is celebrating the work PEN Centres around the world are doing to promote literacy and literature to youth. This stems from PEN’s charter, which recognizes the importance of the free flow of ideas ‘within each nation and between all nations’ and that humanity’s patrimony of art – of which literature is an integral part – must remain untouched by national or political passion, particularly in times of war.

The fine work PEN centres are doing in countries from Bolivia to Zambia is a testament to the dedication and resolve of PEN members –all writers themselves – who believe that young people have a right to education, to learn about human rights, and the importance of critical thinking.

At the same time as celebrating these successes, we should not forget the millions of children and young people in many parts of the world who do not have access to good quality education which is their right. Looking at UNESCO’s map of youth literacy rates, it is noticeable that across most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, these rates remain stubbornly low. It is particularly worrying that in Nigeria – where students were recently attacked in their dormitory by Islamist militants – over 10 million children are not in school. Parts of Asia also have some way to go to achieve full literacy. It is shocking to learn that in Pakistan, the number of children out of school actually fell between 2010 and 2011. PEN members have supported Malala Yousafzai’s courageous campaign for the right to education for girls in Pakistan which almost cost her her life. In discussing these trends, UNESCO has highlighted how progress towards education for all – a goal aimed for by 2015 – is at risk by the reduction in aid by international donors. We should redouble our efforts to ensure that donors reverse this trend as soon as possible.

Another key factor in reducing young people’s access to education are the on-going conflicts around the globe. War results in the death and displacement of both teachers and students, and the insecurity results in decreased access to schools. Existing marginalisation often worsens at times of conflict, when gender inequalities frequently grow. UNESCO’s 2010 report highlighted the impact of conflict on education, confirming what would only be expected – that children whose education is disrupted generally go on to have lower lifetime levels of achievement with all the implications that has for their and their families’ well-being.

The civil war in Syria, for example, has decimated the national education system, and UNHCR and other service providers are struggling to offer education for the hundreds of thousands of school-age refugees who have fled mainly to neighbouring countries.

But literacy is not the only aspect of education to which children have a right. PEN believes that ideas and critical thinking are crucial aspects of education to which all children should be exposed, in order to safeguard our cultural heritage and to ensure its development over time. And it is all too clear that, in countries where freedom of expression is severely restricted, the education that children and young people receive does not allow them to develop an independent and critical voice.

In Eritrea, secondary school students must leave home and complete a compulsory year of schooling in a military camp before they are able to graduate, a violation of their right to a family life. In North Korea, although the literacy rate is reported as very high, there is a strong emphasis on ideological education, and schools are reported to have inadequate fuel, food and educational supplies to properly educate their pupils. In Turkmenistan, similarly to other closed societies, the close control of access to computer technology and hence to online information means that an entire generation is growing up without access to our common heritage of history and literature.

PEN International is fighting such new forms of restriction on the free flow of ideas and thought across borders. It has developed a Declaration on Digital Freedom in which it reiterates the right of each and every individual to express themselves and to seek and receive information freely through digital media.

There is also an increasing body of research that suggests that early years education is best delivered in a child’s mother tongue where possible. In light of this, UNESCO has developed a tool kit for increasing multi-lingual education as part of its ‘Education for all’ programme. Yet in some countries, children who speak minority languages may have no opportunity to learn either through their own language, or to be educated about their own culture. Indeed, in some countries they are banned from even speaking their own language in class or the playground. For example, Kurdish speaking children in Turkey or Iran cannot receive their education in their mother tongue, even in areas where they constitute a majority of the population. PEN International’s Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights highlights the need for education to respect and promote minority languages.

The next time you see carefree children walking to school with their friends, spare a thought for those who cannot get to school at all, or for whom school is a place of indoctrination and restrictions which might literally leave them tongue-tied.

Ann Harrison
Program Director
Writers in Prison Committee