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  5. The Practical Aspects of Learning Human Rights

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FOCUS March 2004 Volume 35

The Practical Aspects of Learning Human Rights

Full support for human rights education in schools means making changes in many components of the formal education system. There is a need for an explicit support for human rights education in education laws and policies. This legal and policy support in turn paves the way for

  • Changes in the school curriculum to incorporate human rights in various subjects or as a separate human rights subject,
  • Critical review of school textbooks based on human rights standards, and development of text-books on human rights,
  • Development of human rights lesson plans and other teaching materials, and
  • Review of school rules and regulations to revise provisions that run counter to human rights principles.

Pre- and in-service teacher training curriculums will have to include human rights and human rights teaching as major subjects. Parents and even the local communities have to take part also in the school programs. Relevant non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are tapped for support.

So far, no government in the region has completely undertaken all the needed supporting components for human rights education in schools. But there are experiences that show how human rights education in schools programs are being implemented along these lines.

Two issues that have caught the attention of educators are about textbooks and the school system. There are studies that examined textbooks and the school system in relation to human rights principles.

Textbook analysis

Regardless of absence of educational policy supporting human rights education, the need to expunge the textbooks of statements and illustrations (or photographs) that depict bias and prejudice against anyone (because of sex, race, age, social or economic status, religion, or political opinion) cannot be denied.

The current problems of violence in the streets and inside the home are linked to the perpetration of thinking and practices that promote bias, prejudice and bigotry.

A research done by the Equal Opportunity Commission in Hong Kong in 2001 confirms the existence of biased or discriminatory thinking in textbooks. Among the guidelines to improve textbooks suggested by the research report, here are some:1

Cultural/Ethnic/Social groups:

  • are presented with respect for themselves and their customs, beliefs and activities
  • are well represented in proportion to their numbers in the community
  • are seen as active in a range of professions and occupations in the community
  • are recognized for their contributions to the community

Old persons:

  • are presented with respect in a range of activities and occupations in the community
  • are presented in a range of ages (not just young and old)
  • are shown enjoying an active and productive social life in the community


  • are shown as having the ability to make decisions, offer advice, solve problems
  • are encouraged to engage with issues concerning social stereotypes
  • are involved in exploring and evaluating social and personal themes and content

Persons with disabilities:

  • are presented with respect in a range of activities and occupations in the community
  • are celebrated in terms of their contributions to the community
  • are presented in the same kinds of activities as persons without disabilities.

These guidelines can be further developed to suit situations in other countries in the region. Other textbook analysis projects echo the guidelines. An examination of Pakistani textbooks, for example, resulted in the following suggestions:2

Language-use [in English textbooks]

Some examples of changes that need to be introduced in routine language-use:

  1. Substitute the universal 'he' for the more specific 'he' or 'she' depending on the context.
  2. 'Humankind' for the universal 'mankind' as the latter tends to subsume the feminine category and render it invisible. Similarly, 'Chairperson' for 'Chairman' and Ms. for Mrs. as the former signifies an adult woman regard-less of whether she is married or not. It is the equivalent of Mr. which also signifies an adult man regardless of whether he is married or not.


The ways in which women are represented also need to be changed. Instead of constantly seeing them referentially or with reference to nurturing and caring activities, they could be seen in their other roles viz. doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc. This would not only redress the gender bias found in textbooks it would also present a more realistic view of our society.

There is also a need to emphasise women's economically productive role in society as opposed to their reproductive role. Beginning with the unpaid and unrecognised labour that sustains household economies viz. cooking, washing, housekeeping, looking after domestic animals, milking, making g h e e,3 stitching clothes etc. and going on to include the different categories of work in the informal sector, it would be necessary to stress the fact that paid work in the public field is enabled by the unpaid work in the domestic enclosure.

School environment

An important project that addresses the need to have the proper school environment for learning human rights is UNICEF's child friendly school system (CFSS). For a number of years now, UNICEF has been giving support to the adoption of CFSS by schools in various countries in the region. Under its Country Program for Children, UNICEF promotes CFSS in Philippine schools. In addition to helping realize child rights, the program links with the Gender and Development Program (GAD) of the Philippine government which is being mainstreamed into the education system.

A CFSS-recognized school is defined as4

one which recognises and respects children's rights and responsibilities, provides the enabling environment to realize children's rights in school, and helps ensure such an environment in the community and households, is child-friendly. The CFSS promotes a new appreciation of and approach to basic education in that the school, to become truly child-friendly, needs to be where students, teachers, parents and the community work together in support of children's education and development. It also puts forward the notion that the school must take responsibility for the education of children who are unenrolled.

CFSS is promoted as an idea that is practical and feasible. A system of assessing how child-friendly a school is emphasizes practical ways of fulfilling child rights. According to an assessment guide developed in the Philippines, a child-friendly school has 5 traits:

  1. Inclusive, gender-sensitive and non-discriminating;
  2. Effective with children;
  3. Healthy for children;
  4. Caring and protective of all children;
  5. Involves children's families and the community.

A checklist on the meaning of one of these school traits states:5

A child-friendly school is effective with children when it

- is child-centered

- has the best interest of the child in mind in all its learning activities

- has a curriculum that addresses the child's learning needs as well as those of the community and society

- employs teaching methods that are suited to the child's age, abilities and ways of learning

- encourages children to think and decide for them-selves, ask questions and express their opinions.

- encourages children to participate in school and community activities

- encourages children to work together to solve problems and to achieve what they aim to do

- encourages children to express their feelings through arts - music, drama and other forms.

The employment of the child-friendly school concept is a practical step that allows school administrators and teachers to see human rights education in concrete form.

One CFSS-related project in Thailand encourages more student activities with the support of the local community. In one seminar, parents and teachers suggested that the school should help organize student clubs that make use of resource persons or instructors from the local community. These people are seen as instrumental in:

  • Organizing activities involving the students
  • Creating awareness among the teachers and community that these activities do not need money
  • Assessing student learning needs and interests
  • Creating a list of local resource persons
  • Encouraging the development of activities that promote the students' self-esteem and self-confidence.

The project also provided the opportunity for the parents to clarify certain rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. One issue discussed was the concept of corporal punishment in schools. The parents learned that it is not desired that there be no punishment at all. The main issue is how to ban all physical punishments. It was asked: why is it that if an adult hit another adult it would be considered illegal, but not when children are hit? The World Health Organization asserts that a child-friendly school must not employ corporal punishment. Research shows that physical punishment does not only have immediate effect but causes aggressive behavior later on. Corporal punishment is still used because schools are unable to find a better way to solve the problem.6

In a study of the impact of CFSS in some Philippine schools, issues about teachers were pointed out:7

a. Teachers' behavior
Undoubtedly, there had been an infusion of concepts and values related to women's and children's rights into the setting of the CFSS schools covered by the study. However, even within an environment that could be relatively controlled by the school heads and teachers, gender biases continue to be brought in through the materials used and the often unconscious and spontaneous remarks and behavior of the teachers themselves. In difficult subjects, such as the teaching of a second language and of science, evidences of gender stereotypes tend to be more pronounced than in subjects that are taught in Pilipino and that relate to less difficult topics.
d. Capacity and morale of teachers
Finally, a way to boost the capacity and morale of teachers at the local level for the promotion of both women's and children's rights is to assist them in building institutional linkages with both [government] and NGO [non-governmental organization] advocates. No amount of training will do any good if the trained persons are unable to re-generate their selves and find support from more accessible people and co-advocates.

Government program

The support of the government is crucial in any human rights education in schools program. Though many NGOs work independently from governments in their school-based programs, governmental support is essential in order to have a sustainable program on human rights education in schools.

Many governments in Asia-Pacific have launched a number of initiatives supporting human rights education in schools. Japan has a law on human rights education but the programs seem to be mainly done by local governments, without complementing national programs. Pakistan and a few other countries have adopted national plans of action on human rights education.

National human rights commissions have on their own developed materials on human rights. Some of these materials are meant for teachers and students.

An older national government program is from the Philippines. The Philippine (Ministry) Department of Education implements in-service training and material development on human rights education (in partnership with the Philippine Commission on Human Rights), GAD, and CFSS programs. In 2003, a series of workshops was held in various parts of the country to8

  1. Collate and analyze the data results from the survey [on teachers' awareness of human rights],
  2. Outline the matrix of HRE [human rights education] core competencies/skills of a human rights teacher,
  3. Design a competency-based training for teachers with reference to the skill and contents requirements of the [relevant subjects in the curriculum],
  4. Develop training packages including facilitators manual (with field testing component),
  5. Finalize the facilitators manual based on field testing results.

Because of its recently revised human rights teaching exemplars, the Department started in February 2004 the training of trainors and teachers to equip them with "relevant content, skills and attitude to effectively integrate human rights values in their respective learning areas."9

The Department's GAD program, which is meant to implement a law on women, aims to "eliminate gender stereotyping in textbooks and instructional materials, ... [and] raise gender awareness among the participants enabling them to be more committed and responsive to gender equality."10 Training workshops are being held under this program. Under the CFSS program, a training kit was produced which contains among others the following:11

  1. Effective Teaching-Learning in Child-Friendly Schools: A Training Manual
  2. Protective and Inclusive Child Friendly Schools: A Training Manual
  3. Gender Sensitivity Training Facilitator's Manual
  4. Storybooks on Children's Rights
  5. Is Your School Child-Friendly? A Self-Assessment Guide.

The Philippine experience shows concrete steps that promote human rights education in schools. It also shows that collaboration between the Ministry/Department of Education, and other institutions (such as national human rights commission and international institution like UNICEF) are essential in implementing programs.

Indeed, there are valuable practical experiences from some countries in the Asia-Pacific that should be models for other countries interested in human rights education in schools to follow.


1. Equal Opportunity Commission of Hong Kong, "Stereotypes in Textbooks and Teaching Materials in Hong Kong," Human Rights Education in Asian Schools, volume 6 (Osaka: HURIGHTS OSAKA, 2003).

2. Aamna Mattu and Neelam Hussain, "Gender Biases and Stereotypes in School Texts" in The Subtle Subversion - The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan, a report of the project "A Civil Society Initiative in Curricula and Textbooks Reform," Sustainable Development Policy Institute (Islamabad, 2003), available at www.sdpi.org

3. Clarified butter.

4. Miriam College - Women and Gender Institute, Gender and Socialization in Child Friendly Schools - An Exploratory Study (Quezon City: 2001) page 7.

5. Department of Education and UNICEF Manila Office, Is Your School Child-Friendly? A Self-Assessment Guide, (Manila: undated)

6. Kreangkrai Chaimaungdee, "Child Rights In School" Participatory Learning Processes for School and Community, The Life Skills Development Foundation (Chiangmai: 2003).

7. Miriam College Women and Gender Institute, op. cit., page 58.

8. Department of Education Memorandum 160, series of 2003, Analysis of the Human Rights Awareness Level of Classroom Teachers and Workshop on Designing Teacher Training Packages on Human Rights Education (HRE), 15 May 2003.

9. Department of Education Memorandum 16, series of 2004, Training of Trainors and Teachers on Human Rights Education (HRE), 13 January 2004.

10. Department of Education Memorandum 19, series of 2004, Gender and Development (GAD) Programs), 15 January 2004.

11. Department of Education Memorandum 19, series of 2004, Child-Friendly School System Trainer's Kit, 21 March 2003.

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