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  3. Human Rights Education in Asian Schools
  4. Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume Ⅰ
  5. Human Rights Education in Schools: Some Aspects of Sri Lankan Experience

Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Backnumber

Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume Ⅰ

Human Rights Education in Schools: Some Aspects of Sri Lankan Experience

Laksiri Fernando
Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka initiated its program on human rights teaching in schools in 1983, one of the first systematic efforts in the region. Ironically, the year also marked the beginning of a period of "gross human rights violations in the country." The dust seemed to have settled to a great extent, the Sri Lanka Foundation (SLF) supported an initiative in 1993 by the National Institute of Education (NIE) to evaluate the "experiences within the last decade with regard to assessment of students' achievement level of human rights learning."1 The SLF, a statutory body under the Sri Lanka Foundation Act of 1973, has its mandate to "promote human rights education in the country." The NIE, on the other hand, is an ancillary body of the government to innovate and evaluate the educational system in the country. It has no special mandate to promote human rights teaching.

   As the evaluation report stated " ... the analysis of results reveal that the students' knowledge on human rights are satisfactory, yet the questions designed were limited to measure cognitive abilities, paying more attention to recall."2 Recent investigations and observations by the Sri Lanka Foundation further reveal that schools design their curricular and activities to suit the needs of acquiring cognitive abilities and learning on human rights. Less attention is paid to learning for human rights and the atmosphere within which this learning processes take place. As one student who participated in an interactive schools program conducted by the SLF recently stated: "We are taught about human rights. But we do not properly understand the importance or the meaning of human rights."

   The most important object of human rights teaching is to create a human rights culture with necessary values and attitudes among the students to promote and protect human rights in a particular society. The cognitive learning about categories, concepts or mechanisms of human rights should be a part of this process, but not something divorced from it. This is the main lesson of the Sri Lankan experience which can be shared with other countries.

Need for Human Rights Teaching

Sri Lanka bequeathed a system of liberal education since independence (1948) which was suitable to the general functioning of its parliamentary democracy. There were no efforts to inculcate a particular ideology or indoctrinate students on a particular way of political thinking. It is in this sense that the system of education could be characterized as liberal. Civics was taught as a subject from grades six to ten where students could acquire knowledge of democracy and its functioning at a cognitive level.3 The general orientation of primary education also was liberal in the sense that a free atmosphere existed in the classroom where students could appreciate the value of freedom, discipline and critical knowledge. Corporal punishments were discouraged in the school system. However, the above version of liberal education was not enough. Not enough to face the emerging problems of independent Sri Lanka.

   There were considerable disparities between the rural and urban schools in terms of facilities and the quality of teaching. In an atmosphere of rapid population growth, additional pressures were placed on the school system. Trained and/or qualified teachers were not readily available to serve the expanding rural schools. The liberal education seemed to have failed in the rural sector by the end of 1960s. The most affected were the northern, eastern and southern parts of the country. The growing spectre of unemployment instigated rural students to join the left-wing movement.

   Education reforms in the early 1970s, aftermath of the rebellion, in fact worsened the situation. While isolating the reason for rebellion as unemployment, the reforms attempted to link education more closely to employment. However, the project was a failure. The apparent casualty was the liberal education as a whole. The teaching of civics was abandoned. Social Studies was introduced into the curriculum with major emphasis on economics, geography, history and aesthetic studies. At the level of upper secondary, the emphasis was on science and commerce education completely divorced from any type of value education. Standardization schemes were introduced to university admissions making ethnic communities in the rural sector antagonistic to each other. While some of the measures of the reforms were reversed or rectified later, the main structure of the education remained as a system devoid of human rights or democratic value education.

   Therefore, the introduction of human rights education in 1983 was a necessary and a welcome step. This was influenced by two factors. The immediate factor was the emphasis given on human rights education in a UN General Assembly Resolution in 1982 and its request for member-countries to start human rights teaching in schools. The other was the continuous emphasis made by the Sri Lanka Foundation on the subject, after its inception in 1973. However, the professional understanding of human rights education and its methodology was at a very rudimentary level in Sri Lanka at this time. There were no specialists, educationists or others, who were conversant with the subject of human rights education. Therefore, the introduction of human rights teaching took the form of an experiment with trial and error.

Methodology Adopted

The selected target group for human rights education was students from years 6 to 11 or grades 5 to 10. Human rights teaching was introduced before the students were separated into streams, i.e. science, arts and commerce, at grade 11. The average age of a student who started learning human rights was 12 years.

   Human rights teaching was not introduced to primary schools and did not continue in upper secondary (year 12 and 13). It is believed that teaching for human rights, to be effective, should start from primary and pre-school level. This was the method adopted by the Australian Human Rights Commission when it introduced human rights teaching into schools in 1985.4 This was also the method prescribed by the UN Centre for Human Rights when it formulated guidelines for human rights teaching in 1989.5

   By the age of 12 years, it is argued, children may harbor well-formed attitudes towards attributes/issues such as gender, caste or race. Sri Lanka did have an disadvantage, from a methodological point of view, by being a pioneer in introducing human rights teaching in schools as early as 1983. By the time, very few books were available on the subject of teaching human rights. There were no courses available inside the country, in law schools or universities, to study human rights systematically. Until today, human rights is not a component in the teacher training curricular for primary or secondary school teachers.

   In 1983, human rights teaching was not introduced as a separate subject to secondary schools. Therefore, there was no necessity for major curricula change or reform. The procedure adopted was the "infusion method." Human rights teaching was infused into the existing Social Studies and History curricula. However, to what extent this infusion could constitute an organic or natural part of the existing curricula was not carefully studied. As a result, certain obvious discrepancies arose. For example, when certain units were selected from History of the country, the obvious message appeared to be contrary to the purpose of human rights teaching. Many of these discrepancies were related to the questions of race relations, religious tolerance and gender equity. Some of these discrepancies were later rectified through the revision of text books. Some other discrepancies remain to date.

   The objectives of human rights teaching, as expressed in the founding document of the program, were five-fold:

  1. What human rights are?
  2. The need to learn human rights.
  3. The importance of human rights in day-to-day life.
  4. How human rights are to be safeguarded in one's own society.
  5. How human rights can be maintained/promoted in one's own society.

   The objectives of the program seemed to be noble and comprehensive.

   To achieve the above objectives, the following were the units selected from Social Studies and History syllabi for human rights teaching:

6Duties and Rights
Ancient Civilization
Agriculture and Irrigation (Ancient Sri Lanka)
Diversity and Unity
7Spread of Civilization (India)
Spread of Civilization (Greek/Chinese)
Agricultural Production
Natural Resources (Water)
Natural Resources (Wild Life)
8Types of Governments (Modern World)
Basic Human Needs (Food)
Economic Systems (Capitalist)
Arts and Crafts, Language, Social Living
Social Organization and Social Living
9Hydraulic Civilization (Sri Lanka)
Fundamental Rights
Basic Economic Problems (Sri Lanka)
Social Systems
10Arrival of Portuguese
Medieval Europe
Social Living and Human Rights
Democratic Government
Preservation of Human Rights
11French Revolution
Safeguarding of Human Rights
Transport and Communication

Need for Change

The units selected for human rights teaching, in the overall, appear to be fairly comprehensive in scope. However, the logical order and cohesiveness of the teaching units can be enhanced to allow students to acquire a progressive knowledge of the subject from year to year. For example, a rearranged unit composition can be as follows for year 6.

Year 6Proposed Units
Basic Human Needs
Human Dignity
Unity and Diversity
Rights and Duties

   Assuming that teaching for human rights will be introduced systematically at the primary level, from pre-school to year five in the future, teaching of (or about) human rights can be strengthened at the lower secondary classes without neglecting the continuation and reinforcement of value education on both rights and duties. It is logical to begin, in my opinion, the cognitive understanding of human rights by, first, discussing basic human needs: the life itself, food, freedom, dignity, shelter, clean air, clean water, health care, employment, etc. This can be enhanced by teaching human dignity separately in practical terms to students through brain storming, role play or any other such method which could create lively interest in the subject being taught. One of the major objectives of teaching human dignity, and the recognition of student dignity in the class room context, is to allow and enhance the full development of the personality of students. "Students will want not only to learn of human rights, but learn in them, for what they do to be of the most practical benefit to them."6

   The notion of human dignity may be reinforced referring to religious and/or cultural traditions of the county without delineation from the modern concept. The dignity means, the "equal and moral worth of all human beings" irrespective of sex, ethnicity, caste, religion, social class, political belief or any other such distinction. In a plural society such as Sri Lanka, or any other country for that matter, the understanding of human unity based on equality, transcending cultural diversity and/or inequality is of paramount importance in human rights teaching. The understanding and tolerance of human diversity based on gender, ethnicity or other distinction are equally important. The weakest points in the present human rights teaching curricular in Sri Lanka are in relation to ethnic tolerance and gender awareness.

   Teaching human rights directly through the existing History syllabi has created enormous difficulties and inconsistencies in the process. The ancient history of any country cannot be taught as if there existed a human rights discourse from the beginning of the humankind. To assume that it did exist renders no justice to history teaching itself. This does not mean that students should not or cannot develop their own opinion as to whether human rights were respected or violated during a particular period of history. However, it has to be clear to the students that human rights notions are modern.

   The ancient societies, both in the East and the West, were organized through a system of duties to meet certain (not all) basic needs of human beings. These systems existed alongside oppressive social systems of slavery, serfdom or caste. It is not correct to say that the performance of duties by one ensured the rights of another because the very essence of the concept of human rights is to ensure the legal protection of all important human needs for the full development of the individual in society. This purpose was completely absent within a system of mere duties. There was no legal obligation for duty performance. It was only a moral obligation. The sense of duty supplied a certain moral fibre to the society which is even necessary today to protect certain values in relation to the environment, animal kingdom and the society at large. A discourse on duties also can help to ensure certain moral limitations to the exercise of rights which otherwise can hamper the rights of others. However, to consider the ancient system of duties as a superior system or an Asian version of human rights is not correct.


After the evaluation conducted in 1993, Sri Lanka has taken steps to rectify many weaknesses in its teaching methodology and to strengthen the quality of teaching of human rights in secondary schools. The text books were revised in 1995 and the contents on human rights have been enlarged. However, most of the chapters on human rights, unfortunately, appear at the end of the text books and syllabi. It has been observed that some teachers fail, as a result, to cover topics on human rights due to time constraints.
   As a step forward, the Sri Lanka Foundation sponsored and supported the preparation of a Teachers Manual for Human Rights Teaching in 1995.7 The SLF also conducts regular workshops and training for teachers to motivate them and enhance their standards in human rights teaching. Unfortunately, human rights is not yet a part of the curricular of formal teacher training at universities and teacher training colleges. The Teachers Manual supplies 29 teaching modules for teaching human rights from grades 5 to 10; five each from grades 5 to 9 and four for grade 10. A sample module is attached as Annex 1. These modules, with instructions for teachers in the Manual, whatever the attached weaknesses, includes exercises for student evaluation, role plays and brainstorming sessions. The SLF has also sponsored the preparation of Multi-Media Packs for teaching human rights in secondary schools. A description of these instruments in the Pack is in Annex II.

   However, a major weakness of human rights teaching in Sri Lanka still remains in respect of ethnic harmony. Sri Lanka in well-known for its prolonged, violent and unresolved ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. It is the non-formal sector which has been somewhat effective in promoting awareness and education towards the goal of ethnic harmony. These non-formal educational efforts have been spearheaded by mainly NGOs. The SLF also participates in these efforts in no uncertain means supplementing and encouraging NGO activities towards ethnic harmony, gender equity, nation-building and conflict resolution. It is our view that an integrated approach to human rights education is necessary encompassing all these varied and interrelated issues. However, this task has been enormous considering that certain values imparted through the official curricular are still inimical directly to ethnic equity and harmony in the country. There is an urgent need, therefore, in the introduction of education for human rights and ethnic reconciliation at the primary school level and strengthening it at the secondary schools.

End Notes

  1. George Wijesuriya, Teaching Human Rights in Secondary Schools: An Evaluation of the Programme, National Institute of Education, Colombo, 1993
  2. Ibid page 2.
  3. The text books were written by prominent scholars like S F do Silva and Prof. A J Wilson.
  4. Ralph Petman (ed), Teaching for Human Rights: Pre school and Grades 1-1, Human Rights Commission (Australia), Canberra. 1985
  5. United Nations, ABC: Teaching Human Rights: Primary Activities for Primary and Secondary Schools, United Nations, New York, 1989.
  6. Ibid, p 6.
  7. A. A. Navaratna. Evaluating Human Rights Learning Teachers Manual, National Institute of Education, Maharagama, 1995.

Annex I

Human Rights Evaluation Program
Development of Evaluation Instruments for Year 6-11 Classes

Year: 8
Subject: Social Studies and History
Lesson Unit: Social Studies - Food (Basic Needs of Man)
Human Rights Concept: Link between Food and Human Rights

Expected Learning Outcomes:

The Students will

  1. State that out of all their basic needs, the right to obtain food is a very important one.
  2. Explain that some receive sufficient supplies of food whereas others do not.
  3. Give reasons as to why in Sri Lanka the right to receive food is not enjoyed equally by all citizens.
  4. Conclude that a set of other human rights are lost when the right to obtain food has not been fulfilled.
  5. Point out that it is socially unjustifiable for some to consume excessive amounts of food while others suffer near starvation.
  6. Approve that it is socially justifiable to distribute the available food equitably among all.
  7. Conclude that if more people are to enjoy the right to receive food, more people must engage in activities related to food production.
  8. Suggest ways and means that should be followed in order to ensure the human rights to food.

The Nature of the Instrument:

   This evaluation is to be conducted after the lesson unit on "food" has been taught. First, the students are given some pictures (drawings, posters etc.) dealing with subjects related to Human Rights for their observation.

Preliminary Work:

  1. Prepare the pictures.
  2. Discuss with the children on what is going to be done.


Step I --Present to the class the 4 pictures given on the next pages. These drawings depict some topic/subject/message related to human rights. Exhibit the items well so that all children see them equally well.

Step II --The teacher delivers a few words of introduction about the drawings, their content, theme etc. followed by a discussion with the pupils, especially touching on links between the subject dealt within the pictures and human rights.

Step III --Students study (observe) the drawings once more after which the test may be administered.

   Drawing I --Two street urchins are shown exploring a rubbish bin. One child has happily discovered a crumb of bread.

   Drawing II --A woman and three children are seated on the pavement. They are dressed in rags and bear a helpless look. Their bodies are lean and rundown. They are seen begging for food from passersby.

   Drawing III -- the dining room of a rich family. A beautifully laid table. Many kinds of food are in exotic dishes. Husband, wife and daughter are seen dining. Servants wait upon them. The bowl of the pet dog is filled with equally sumptuous food.

   Drawing IV -- A rally in which the following placards are being displayed. "Bring down the prices of food", "Give us jobs", "We demand a pay rise", "Where are the promised food subsidies?"

[The drawings given are only meant as a guide; teachers can feel free to create their own works of art so long as the four recommended themes are followed].


  1. In drawing I, children were seen picking bread crumbs to eat. Can you attribute any reasons for this?
  2. In drawing II, why do the mother and children keep crying for food?
  3. Describe the feelings you got when you saw drawing III, after seeing drawings I and II.
  4. Which of the three drawings suggest that injustice has been meted out to some people.
  5. Explain these injustices depicted in picture by picture.
  6. Mention two other rights an individual would lose when his/her right to obtain food has been violated.
  7. Do you think that it is just and fair for people in drawing III to enjoy meals like that without thinking about the vast multitude of people who do not have any? Give reasons for your answer.
  8. Suppose you think it is unjust for them to enjoy meals in that fashion. What would you do to "prevent such injustices as that?"
  9. What human rights are being displayed in drawing IV?

Other Instructions:

  1. Lead a discussion on the theme at the end of the activity and the evaluation.

  2. Develop positive attitudes within the students on the above teaching, learning and evaluation process adopted.

Annex II


About the Project

   The Human Rights Centre of the Sri Lanka Foundation initiated the preparation of Multi-Media Packages in order to improve the quality of teaching about human rights with History and Social Science subjects in the school curriculum.

   The Sri Lanka foundation also assisted in the provision of monetary assistance to the project through the High Commission of Great Britain in Sri Lanka.

   The design and implementation of these packages were handled by the Department of Social Sciences of the National Institute of Education.

   Generally, the use of Multi-Media is not resorted to in teaching in the secondary schools in Sri Lanka. Multi-Media, however, is used widely in teaching programs in other parts of the world. The use of multimedia provides an interesting and an appealing learning session as against listening to a lecture or participating in a discussion.

   Printed materials, posters, audio/video cassettes, and games of an educational nature comprise these packages.

   Under this project, 12 such packages have been designed. Given below is a short description of each the 12 packages. A user guide with information regarding the packages is also available.

Multi-Media Package 1
Duties and Rights (Year 6)

   This package has been designed adhering to the topic 'Duties and Rights' appearing in the Year 6 syllabus.

   The activities in this package have been designed bearing in mind the existence of a common bond between duties and rights of an individual. The activities on human rights guide the student towards meaningful discovery.

   These activities are also related to every day life.

The package includes:
   a diorama
   a poster
   an audio cassette and
   a workbook for the student
   The package is directed towards self-learning.

Multi-Media Package 2
Mesopotamia (Year 6)

   This package is based on the unit 'The Fundamental Rights of Early Civilization' dealt with in the year 6 History lesson.

   The package helps the learner grasp the position of human rights in Mesopotamian civilization. The aim is to involve the learner in activities designed to teach this section of the lesson. The use of the package in teaching this particular session is discussed with the guidance given.

The package consists of:

a map of the world
5 posters and
a video cassette.

Multi-Media Package 3
Natural Resources - Water (Year 7)

   This package has been designed to suit the section on ' The right to live in suitable surroundings with access to water supply' appearing in the year 7 Social Studies syllabus.

   The need to conserve and maintain purity in the natural supply of water is highlighted in this package.

The package consists of:

   a poster
   a cassette and
   a slide labelled 'water to quench thirst'

Multi-Media Package 4
Human Rights related to Greek Civilization (Year 7)

   This package contains material to confirm 'The position of Human Rights in Greek Civilization', a topic appearing in the year 7 History syllabus.

   The activities are designed to highlight the existence of democratic rights in Greek society, so necessary for the survival of human rights.

The package consists of:
   a set of posters and
   a set of notes on activities to help the teacher.

Multi-Media Package 11
Human Rights in the United Nations (Year 10)

   This package has been designed to suit year 10 syllabus on 'Preservation of Human Rights".

   The activities provide an opportunity to identity the efforts taken by the United Nations to preserve human rights. The importance attached to the 'Declaration' issued by the organization for the welfare of human beings, is also highlighted here.

   Slides, simulation games, and literature regarding the various agencies affiliated to the United Nations complete the package.

Multi-Media Package 12
The French Revolution (Year 11)

   This package is based on the year 11 History lesson on the winning of human rights.

   The package deals with the identification of the French Revolution as an important landmark in the struggle for human rights.

   A series of sensitive activities highlight the change in attitudes leading to 'New Thinking' brought in by the background to the French Revolution.

The package includes:
   a map of the world showing the position of France,
   a poster with information about those responsible for the 'New World',
   a copy of declaration of human rights in 1971,
   reading material on philosophers, and
   a cassette.

Inquiries about Multi-Media Packages should be addressed to:
   The Director
   Department of Social Science
   National Institute of Education