Global Support for Free Education for All Children Is Growing

There are indicators of a possible huge advancement this year at the highest human rights body of the United Nations in Geneva, with increasing expectations for new legal recognition of every child’s right to free education from pre-primary through secondary education.

The Dominican Republic will meet at the Human Rights Council on March 20 with representatives from Luxembourg, Sierra Leone, Colombia, Panama, Nauru, Bulgaria, and Romania, as well as from Human Rights Watch, Plan International, and Girls Not Brides. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the urgent need for a new legal instrument. They will highlight how human rights and free pre-primary and secondary education are inextricably linked, with an emphasis on the empowerment of women and girls in particular.

Globally, nearly half of all children are not enrolled in preprimary education, with only 2 in 5 children in low- and lower-middle-income countries attending such programs. Additionally, only 45 percent of children completed secondary school in 2021. For too many children, the cost of preprimary and secondary education remains a significant barrier to attendance. Global failure to universalize free access to the full cycle of education perpetuates poverty and inequality and hinders societal progress and development.

Yet many low- and middle-income countries are making significant strides to provide more free education. Countries like Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Nepal, and Sierra Leone, among at least 110 worldwide, have legislation that guarantees at least one year of free preprimary education and free secondary education.

But international human rights law has not kept pace with this progress. For example, the UN’s children’s rights treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, does not obligate states to provide free secondary education on the same immediate basis as primary education, nor does it explicitly reference early childhood education. This discrepancy is spurring growing global support for enshrining these rights into a new legal instrument, a fourth optional protocol to the convention. In turn, new international law could propel further implementation of free education in countries where fees are still charged.

It is imperative that other states rally behind this initiative. Together, they can guarantee that every child can learn and fulfill their potential, laying the groundwork for a more just and equitable future.