A child’s right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is guaranteed under international law. Yet children and young people in several countries across the world experience discrimination because of their religion or belief, including in educational settings.
For example, Christian children in northern Nigeria are often obliged to adopt Muslim names in order to access education. Hindu children in Pakistan face psychological and physical abuse from classmates and teachers. Rohingya Muslim children in Burma witness their schools being knocked down. Baha’i children in Iran are regularly abused physically and verbally by teachers.
“I was beaten with sticks approximately twice a week throughout nursery and prep. After that the manner of the abuse changed. As well as physical punishment, I was mentally abused and tortured by consistently being told to convert.”
Gurinder Singh, Sikh, Pakistan, 17 years old
The right to education, like the right to FoRB, ‘is crucial to the realization of a wide array of other human rights.’ Education can facilitate social mobility, or entrench disadvantage. It can assist in creating a culture of tolerance, or contribute towards fuelling stereotyping, intolerance and extremism.
With this in mind, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has produced a new report entitled Faith and a Future: Discrimination on the Basis of Religion or Belief in Education. Through verified case studies and in depth research in five countries spanning five geographical regions, this report seeks to stimulate vital conversations, encouraging further research and necessary action to address religious discrimination in educational settings.
An underreported issue
While the right to education has generated significant interest in the international arena, the impact on children of FoRB violations in educational settings has received insufficient attention.
For example, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a commitment to ‘leave no one behind’; however, the lack of focus on the experiences of religious and ethnic minorities means that these goals fail to address discrimination on the basis of religion or belief in the area of educational rights.
Similarly, during the first two cycles of the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC’s) Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process only 31 out of more than 55,000 recommendations referred jointly to the right to education and the right to FoRB. Moreover, while FoRB special rapporteurs have sought to draw attention to religion-related violations in educational settings, non-FoRB experts are yet to examine this intersection, despite the interelated nature of human rights.
Violations take several forms
FoRB violations in the educational setting can take a number of forms:
Biased education, including intolerance from teachers and discrimination in textbooks, creates a toxic mix, leaving students from minority religious communities isolated and reviled. Curriculum reform should be an urgent priority in countries where religious bigotry is fostered by textbooks that encourage religious stereotyping and even hatred. Teachers should also receive training to enable them to understand and promote respect for different religious traditions.
“Education can be the bulwark against extremist ideologies, sectarianism, discrimination and stereotypes.”
Discrimination and intolerance on the basis of religion or belief significantly undermine enjoyment of the right to education, including in Rakhine State, Burma, where Rohingya children are unable to access education on account of their religion and ethnicity. Effective action must be taken to protect the rights of children in countries or communities where they are barred from attending school because of their religious beliefs or those of their parents.
The psychological impact of the abuse received by children on account of their religion or belief cannot be overstated. Many interviewees informed CSW of the ‘mental torture’ they have suffered as a result of religious discrimination and intolerance in educational settings. Rejected by their peers and teachers, this suffering can have lasting consequences.
“I got mentally disturbed. I thought that I had to give up.”
Change starts here
It is vital that governments address and end any violations that may be occurring in their respective countries, ensuring perpetrators are held to account. For the sake of the children who suffer the consequences of religious discrimination in educational settings, the international community must also act swiftly to address violations, and invest resources into further research on the interaction between FoRB and the right to education.
CSW hopes its new report, along with the Faith and a Future campaign, will encourage governments, civil society actors and key international bodies and officials to work towards ensuring that every child has the right to both faith and a future.
By Mervyn Thomas, CSW’s Chief Executive
 Report of the Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall, ‘Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the Right to Development’, 2009, UNGA/A/HRC/10/11/Add/ 5/3/2009