Advancing transformative human rights education: a priority for our times
Transformative human rights education requires a community-based approach, intended for children, youth, and adults in formal or non-formal settings, and one that includes cognitive, affective, and action-oriented elements.
October 24, 2016 by Monisha Bajaj, University of San Francisco, Beniamino Cislaghi, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Gerry Mackie, Center on Global Justice at the University of California San Diego
7 minutes read
A student of CE1 (grade 3) at Maka Dieng Primary School in Tivaouane, Senegal. Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

October 24 marks United Nations (UN) Day and one of the greatest achievements of the UN was its adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nearly 70 years ago in 1948. Its 30 articles elaborate a vision of dignity, equality, and justice through the guarantee of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

One of the greatest challenges since the adoption of the Declaration has been that the most vulnerable individuals and communities have often lacked knowledge of their rights and the ways to achieve them.

Education is a cornerstone to all other human rights

The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that, “every individual and every organ of society shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.” As a result, human rights education that offers accessible, engaged, and transformative learning is the cornerstone of access to and fulfillment of all other human rights.

In April 2016, the Global Citizenship Commission (GCC), comprised of eminent global leaders and chaired by former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and current UN Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, released a report assessing the status and future of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Commission identified human rights education as a central component of achieving the goals of the UDHR in the years to come.

How to teach human rights to all

As authors of the 120-page Appendix titled “Advancing Transformative Human Rights Education” that accompanies the GCC’s report, we define transformative human rights education as a community-based approach, intended for children, youth, and adults in formal or non-formal settings, and one that includes cognitive, affective, and action-oriented elements.

Contextualized and relevant studies are paired with interactive learning to bring human rights to life and to foster in students and citizens an awareness of global citizenship and a respect for human rights.

Transformative human rights education exposes gaps between rights and realities, and provokes group dialogue on the specific steps essential to closing the gaps. Learners engage in critical reflection, open discussion, and individual and collective action to move the cause of human rights forward locally, nationally, and globally.

Equipping students with knowledge and skills on human rights

Many governments do not fulfill their obligation to provide human rights education, and of those who do so, the effort is often shallow. 

We call for transformative human rights education, a more holistic and intentional approach that examines all forms of rights deprivation and seeks to equip students with knowledge and skills to promote and realize human rights for all.

In our Appendix, we identify several principles of transformative human rights education as well as the dimensions that lead to the enhancement of individual and collective agency as shown in the figure.

Figure-Actions towards greater realization of human rights

Transformative human rights education helps participants contextualize global human rights standards in local understandings and practices through participatory pedagogy and contextually-relevant approaches.

Whether in formal, non-formal, or informal learning settings, educators and learners envision new realities and ways of being in order to change unequal social conditions.

We further detail four case studies of transformative human rights education in India, West Africa, Colombia, and Europe.

Examples from India and Senegal

For example in southern India, Prakash narrated tearfully how at age 11 his parents sold him into bonded labor. He begged to return home and his classmates pleaded with his parents. After more than a year in servitude, his parents brought him home and he re-enrolled in school.

Human rights education offered through a non-governmental organization called the Institute of Human Rights Education, in collaboration with his school has helped Prakash make sense of the conditions of his family, the practice of bonded labor, and the rights all children are entitled to.

In Senegal men and women participating in the non-formal human rights classes offered by the NGO Tostan changed the age-old norm that forbade women to speak or act in public in their rural communities, and peacefully revised and changed other practices by engaging others in their villages in meaningful collective discussions and public actions.

These examples, included in the Appendix, illustrate the power and promise of transformative human rights education.

Re-committing to the power of education in achieving human rights

As we celebrate this United Nations Day and the relevance of the UDHR for a new generation, transformative human rights education must become a central component of discussions of educational policy and practice as it offers a necessary precondition for the achievement of all other human rights.

As Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Education shall be directed to … the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups…”

Our times necessitate a renewed commitment to such an expansive vision of peace, and the role of education in achieving it. 

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