Compasito - Manual on Human Rights Education for Children
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... [E]very individual and every organ of society ... shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms...

Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

1. Introducing human rights education

No single definition for human rights education will serve the many ways in which people young and old come to understand, practise and value their rights and respect the rights of others. The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Education Youth Programme defines human rights education as:

...educational programmes and activities that focus on promoting equality in human dignity, in conjunction with programmes such as those promoting intercultural learning, participation and empowerment of minorities.

The telling phrase in this definition is “in conjunction”, for human rights education is rarely undertaken outside of a specific context, ideally based on the needs, preferences, abilities and desires of the learners.

The key to defining human rights education is its purpose, for no matter what the methodology or context, its aim is always the development of a culture of human rights. The essential elements of such a culture can provide general objectives for human rights education:

  • to strengthen respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • to value human dignity and develop individual self-respect and respect for others
  • to develop attitudes and behaviours that will lead to respect for the rights of others
  • to ensure genuine gender equality and equal opportunities for women and men in all spheres
  • to promote respect, understanding and appreciation of diversity, particularly towards different national, ethnic, religious, linguistic and other minorities and communities
  • to empower people towards more active citizenship
  • to promote democracy, development, social justice, communal harmony, solidarity and friendship among people and nations
  • to further the activities of international institutions aimed at the creation of a culture of peace, based upon universal values of human rights, international understanding, tolerance and non-violence.

Human rights education for children

Childhood is the ideal time to begin lifelong learning about and for human rights. And the far reaching objectives of general human rights education can be interpreted to fit the world of the young child in more concrete terms of personal experience in the community, in the family and in the personal relationships the child encounters everyday with adults and other children. Human rights learning seeks to foster feelings of confidence and social tolerance, the fundamental bases for the whole culture of human rights:

  • to value self and others
  • to recognize and respect human rights in everyday life
  • to understand one’s own basic rights and be able to articulate them
  • to appreciate and respect differences
  • to acquire attitudes to address conflicts in non-violent ways that respect the rights of others
  • to develop children’s confidence in their ability to take action and their skills to defend and promote human rights.

Although they are at the beginning of their formal education, children possess a wealth of knowledge about their world and the people in it. As far as possible, human rights learning should connect with and enlighten what children already know. For example, although they may not use words like justice, equality or discrimination, by the age of seven or eight most children have a strong sense of what is ‘fair’.

Knowledge, skills and attitudes

Knowledge: Learning about human rights:

What type of knowledge do children need to understand human rights in their daily lives? What skills and attitudes do they need to develop and sustain a real-life culture of human rights? Compasito seeks to answer these questions in both the background information it provides for facilitators and the activities it recommends for children’s human right learning. Together they form a holistic approach that includes learning about human rights, learning for human rights and learning in human rights.

Although knowledge about human rights necessarily varies with the maturity and capacity of the child, in general it includes these essential concepts:

  • Human rights provide standards of behaviour in the family, in school, in the community and in the wider world;
  • Human rights standards are universal, although there may be different ways of interpreting and experiencing them;
  • Every child has human rights and also the responsibility to respect the rights of others. These include the right for protection, provisions and the right to participation, such as to express opinions in matters that concern oneself. These rights are set down in the Convention of the Rights of the Child;
  • Other international documents also exist to implement the protection of human rights, such as the United Nations Declarations on Human Rights (UDHR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Skills: learning for human rights:

Children need to acquire the skills that will enable them to participate in a democracy and contribute to building a culture of human rights. Skills for human rights include:

  • Active listening and communication: being able to listen to different points of view, to express one’s own opinions and evaluate both;
  • Critical thinking: distinguishing between fact and opinion, being aware of prejudices and preconceptions, recognising forms of manipulation;
  • Cooperating in group work and addressing conflict positively;
  • Consensus building;
  • Participating democratically in activities with peers;
  • Expressing oneself with self-confidence;
  • Problem solving.

Attitudes: Learning in human rights:

Human rights are not just legal documents that bind states. They are also principles for how children and all people should live together. Yet because they are intangibles principally expressed through the actions they inform, human rights values and attitudes are both the most difficult and the most long-lasting form of human rights education. Children learn as much or more from unspoken examples as they do from overt lessons, and they have a keen sense of hypocrisy. It is incumbent on everyone who works with children to model the human rights values they wish to impart.

Attitudes to be learned in human rights include:

  • Respect for self and others;
  • A sense of responsibility for one’s own actions;
  • Curiosity, an open mind and an appreciation of diversity;
  • Empathy and solidarity with others and a commitment to support those whose human rights are denied;
  • A sense of human dignity, of self-worth and of others’ worth, irrespective of social, cultural, linguistic or religious differences;
  • A sense of justice and social responsibility to see that everyone is treated justly;
  • The desire to contribute to the betterment of the school or community;
  • The confidence to promote human rights both locally and globally.

Methodologies for human rights education

Because participatory methodologies assume that everyone has the right to an opinion and respects individual differences, they have proven especially effective for human rights education. Going beyond factual content to include skills, attitudes, values and action requires an educational structure that is ‘horizontal’ rather than ‘hierarchical’. Its democratic structure engages each individual and empowers her or him to think and interpret independently. It encourages critical analysis of real-life situations and can lead to thoughtful and appropriate action to promote and protect human rights. In other words, to be effective, human rights education must provide children with a supportive framework where the rights of every individual child are respected.

The methodologies described below are used in a great variety of learning environments, both formal and non-formal, with a limitless number of topics. However, they have in common certain features that make them especially appropriate for people of all ages to learn about human rights:

  • Respect for children’s experience and recognition of a variety of points of view;
  • Promotion of personal enrichment, self-esteem, and respect for the individual child;
  • Empowerment of children to define what they want to know and to seek information for themselves;
  • Active engagement of all children in their own learning with a minimum of passive listening;
  • Encouragement of non-hierarchical, democratic, collaborative learning environments;
  • Encouragement of reflection, analysis, and critical thinking;
  • Engagement of subjective and emotional responses, as well as cognitive learning;
  • Encouragement of behavioral and attitudinal change;
  • Emphasis on skill building and practical application of learning;
  • Recognition of the importance of humor, fun, and creative play for learning.

The activities in Compasito combine a variety of methods and techniques with these characteristics. Facilitators should always be aware that some methods may be inappropriate for some groups of mixed cultural backgrounds or special needs (e.g. physical contact, graphic arts) or require unfamiliar or unavailable resources (e.g. access to Internet or library resources). Every activity should be approached with the expectation that the facilitators will adapt the methodologies to meet the needs of the children and the cultural and social environment in which they live.

Non-formal education

Many of the choices and adaptations a facilitator makes depends on the makeup of the group, the age of the children, the skills of the facilitator and the context in which they live and work. An important consideration is whether the setting for human rights education is formal, non-formal or informal.

Formal education refers to the structured education system that runs from primary to tertiary education, and can also include specialised programmes for technical and professional training. The main actors are schools and a range of higher education institutions. The Universal Declaration and the Convention on the Rights of the Child mandate that all children should have at least an elementary formal education.

Non-formal education refers to any intentional, voluntary and planned programme of personal and social education that aims to convey and practise values and develop a wide range of skills and competencies for democratic life. Non-formal education for children might include out-of-school activities, extra-curricular activities in schools, summer camps and leisure centres. Non-formal education emphasises a participative approach to learning.

Informal education refers to the unintentional lifelong process whereby everyone acquires attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from the educational influences and resources in his or her own environment and from daily experience (e.g. family, neighbours, library, mass media, work, play).

Formal, non-formal and informal education are complementary and mutually reinforcing elements of a lifelong learning process. The activities in Compasito have been designed to be flexible enough for use in all such contexts: in the school, in children’s organisations, in youth clubs, in summer camps in settings of social work and in the family.

Introducing human rights education in work with children

Just as human rights are a part of everyone’s daily life experience, so human rights education should be integrated into children’s ongoing learning. Compasito is not intended or recommended as a ‘course’ on human rights, but as a resource for raising children’s awareness and understanding of human rights in the context of their lives. Look for opportunities to relate human rights to what is happening in the school, the community and the group of children you work with: a conflict on the playground, negative attitudes toward minorities or sexist exclusion of girls from certain activities. On the other hand, avoid approaching human rights only from the perspective of violations. Emphasize that we enjoy some human rights every day.

One primary aim of human rights education is action on behalf of human rights. Encourage and develop children’s ability to take appropriate and meaningful action to address human rights issues. For children this action may be between individuals, such as resolving conflicts within the group or the family, perhaps changing behaviour toward siblings. Action may also take place in the wider community, such as organizing a celebration for International Human Rights Day or putting on an exhibiting of human rights-related artwork. The younger the children, the more they will rely on the facilitator’s support in initiating and executing more complex projects.

The right to human rights education

Education in human rights is itself a fundamental human right and also a responsibility: the Preamble to the UDHR exhorts “every individual and every organ of society” to “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.” Article 26.2 of the UDHR states that –

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, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) declares that a government “may not stand in the way of people learning about [their rights].”

People who do not know their rights are more vulnerable to having them abused and often lack the language and conceptual framework to effectively advocate for them. All the more reason for introducing human rights education to children!

Growing consensus around the world recognizes education for, about and in human rights as essential to a quality education. It can contribute to the building of free, just and peaceful societies. Human rights education is also increasingly recognized as an effective strategy to prevent human rights abuses.

Human rights education and other educational fields

Compasito is structured around thirteen human rights-related themes, each of which relates directly to one or more concrete human rights (See Chapter V., p. 213, for a discussion of these themes):

  • Citizenship
  • Democracy
  • Discrimination
  • Education and leisure
  • Environment
  • Family and alternative care
  • Gender equality
  • Health and welfare
  • Media and Internet
  • Participation
  • Peace and human security
  • Poverty and social exclusion
  • Violence

None of these themes is more important than another. Indeed, they are so interrelated that addressing any one of them provides a common link with any other. This is a direct consequence of the fact that human rights are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated: they cannot be treated in isolation, because all are connected to one another in various ways.

The diagram below provides one illustration of this interdependence. The issues in the outer circle blend into one another, just as the educational spheres in the central circle merge together. Even the distinction between first, second and third generation rights are not clear-cut. Education, for example, is traditionally classed as a second generation right, but education is just as necessary for participation (first generation right) as it for sustainable development (a third generation right). Accordingly, the following analysis should be seen as just one description among many, but it should help to illustrate the ways in which the various themes are relevant to many of the current educational fields and how these fields overlap with one another.