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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: The Experience of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights

Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Backnumber

Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume Ⅰ

Human Rights Education in Schools: The Experience of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights

Piyadasa Ranpathwila
Colombo, Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka is a member of the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC); an island in the Asia-Pacific region. 25,000 square miles in size, it lies at the very tip of the Indian sub-continent. It is multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-lingual, with a population of approximately 18 million.

   After achieving independence from the British Empire in 1948 it has been under a democratic constitution for the past half-century. In the 1970s, it adopted an open economic system as its route to development which continues to this date with fair success.

   In the era prior to achieving independence in 1948, Sri Lanka had a steady income from the export of its agricultural commodities, i.e. tea, rubber and coconut. The price of these commodities depended on the requirements of monopoly of the exporters. As a consequence, the country began to face a crisis in the decade of the 1960s. Agriculture was the livelihood of 85% of the population and comprised of growing paddy, other grains and vegetables. However, the country's agricultural industry was unable to meet the requirements of the country, and the economic crisis rose to a peak.

   The increase of the cost of living, less employment opportunities, and the supply of jobs on the basis of party politics caused a sharp rise in youth unrest, and resulted in an insurgency in 1971. In the 1980s, the protests of the people erupted in the form of several complicated anti-government struggles. A guerilla warfare waged by a group of rebels challenging the power of the State arose in the southern part of the country where the majority of the people are Sinhala. Another group of separatists emerged in the northern and the eastern parts of the country. The violence which emerged because of the strong measures taken by the government to control these anti-government rebellions continued throughout the decade of the 1980s, and resulted in innumerable and immeasurably brutal violations of human rights all over the country.

   Even at the beginning of the 1990s, it was unsafe to talk in public about democratic principles of governance or human rights. The involuntary disappearances of persons caused by members of the armed forces and brutal killings by unidentified gunmen became ordinary events. It was at such a time that the Centre for the Study of Human Rights (CSHR) in the University of Colombo started its Human Rights Education Program for Schools (HRES).

   The primary and secondary education (Grades 1 to 13) in Sri Lanka, apart from an insignificantly small portion controlled by the private sector, is governed by the government school system.

   According to 1994 statistics, the total number of state schools under the government school system is 10,311. Of the student population of 4,132,749, 681,963 students are in the General Certificate of Education - Ordinary Level and Advanced Level classes. In other words, within the course of the next two or three years, this group of 681,963 students will either complete their education or abandon it and prepare to take up their social commitments. About 70,000 students qualify for university education annually, but the national universities can absorb only 10,000. It is only a morsel, a mere 1.9 per cent of the annual intake of students.

   One of the two primary target groups selected by the CSHR for human rights education is the studentry. The other is the general public.

   It was decided to choose this group of students, out of the 4.1 million student population, who are about to end their school careers because of the wave of violations of human rights in the context of worsening economic, social and political environments. The rationale is that they form the core of the citizens of the 21st century and it is very desirable that such a group be exposed to different dimensions of human rights.

Basic features of the program

Three important factors were taken into consideration in designing the human rights education program for schools:

  1. knowledge: the program should enable students to acquire knowledge on the subject of human rights and its local and international legal framework;
  2. attitude: it should provide the necessary experience to facilitate attitude formation in order to develop behavior patterns which promote the protection of human rights; and
  3. social responsibilities: it should also provide opportunities to bring about the realization of people's obligations to protect not only their rights but also those of the others.

   CSHR perceived that knowledge of human rights and of the relevant local and international laws are not sufficient to develop a society which respects human rights. It was keen to choose an appropriate methodology to provide students with an understanding of human rights norms which would subsequently alter behavior patterns. To achieve this end, CSHR selected the non-formal education methodology.

   Non-formal education methodology means less classroom activities and more field activities.

   For the course material in the program, CSHR was cautious in choosing components which are easily approachable, closer to life, directly connected to natural and visual environments and social relationships, easy to observe, and convenient to collect, analyze and arrive at conclusions.

   Accordingly, course materials were developed under the following themes:

  1. environmental issues and human rights;
  2. agricultural economy and human rights;
  3. peace-keeping officers and human rights;
  4. child rights;
  5. women's rights;
  6. consumer rights;
  7. public service and human rights (human rights in relation to government administrative offices, public health service, etc.).
   Activities designed under each theme are comprised of the following sub-themes:

   I. Pre-planning

  1. selection of a suitable site for an appropriate field activity under each theme;
  2. designing the educational process in accordance with the proposed activity;
  3. deciding on the person or group of persons to be interviewed
    1. preparation of questionnaires in accordance with the information expected to be revealed;
    2. use of appropriate methods to report collected information;
    3. delegation of responsibilities in an appropriate manner among the group of students.

   II. Implementation

   Collection and recording of information following the planned activity. A review workshop attended by all program coordinators held after implementing the training program helps CSHR in data collection.

   III . Analysis

   a. Data analysis and conclusion formulation

   In analyzing the data gathered, several issues have to be discussed that form the basic components of data analysis and conclusion. Following are the issues involved:

  1. deciding on whether human rights have been protected or violated;
  2. identifying the underlying facts that affected the violation or protection of human rights;
  3. deciding on what strategies to be used to protect human rights;
  4. suggesting measures to prevent the violations of human rights from occurring again;
  5. identifying the persons who are responsible for the existing state of affairs.

   b. Preparation of written report based on the gathered information

   c. Production of other activities using the gathered information

   The program has a number of activities which became the main media for communicating to other students the findings of the research. They are the following:

  1. writing an essay for the school's wall newspaper;
  2. composing a speech to be made at the meeting of a school society;
  3. producing a short play for the school's concert;
  4. re-creating human rights related incidents through art or sculpture;
  5. reproducing the experiences through songs, poems or short stories.
   IV. Exhibition of various creations produced by the target group based on their experiences to the school community and the general public

   a. organization of a special program called Human Rights Day in the school. It is a festive day for the school, with outsiders, parents and special guests being invited to the school;
   b. inclusion of the following items in the Human Rights Day, with the involvement of the whole student population of the school:

  1. exhibition of arts and sculptures;
  2. exhibition of human rights slogans;
  3. speech competitions;
  4. essay and short story competitions;
  5. short plays; and
  6. lectures on human rights by reputed experts

c. awarding of certificates and prizes to the participating students.

Specific objectives of the course

The program has identified a set of objectives as follows:

  1. to provide opportunities to analyze through hands-on experience protection and violation of human rights in the social environment
  2. to facilitate learning about human rights components and human rights laws through activities;
  3. to provide opportunities for realization through first-hand experience the social injustice and the social indignity that result from the lack of respect for, or disregard of, human rights;
  4. to facilitate the realization that human rights not only as a means of gaining one's rights but also as an instrument for correcting social behavior;
  5. to provide opportunities to students to develop skills related to education through the program (writing, speech making, enhancing creativity, designing art works, field observation, data collection and analysis, and making conclusions)
  6. to provide suitable experiences which promote personality development through enhancement of essential qualities such as leadership, acceptance of challenges, self discipline, determination, commitment, and patience.

Identified Beneficiaries

The direct target group is a group of students about to leave school from the General Certificate of Education Ordinary and Advanced Level classes. Selection is done by prioritizing those who volunteer. The first batch of schools had 25 student trainees per school, and in the later years a group of 40-60 students were selected. The main beneficiaries would be this group.

   Certain school principals, teachers and education officers were selected to conduct the program as school level coordinators and regional level coordinators. They too were given an 80-hour training on their role as conductors and coordinators of the program. These personnel can be considered indirect beneficiaries of this program. It was through this program that they first received a structured understanding and knowledge of the subject and practice of human rights.

   The entire student body of the school becomes indirect beneficiaries of the program too. The knowledge and experience that the students gained through participation in the Human Rights Day activities led to an interest in human rights and eagerness to learn the subject.

   The parents of students of the school, and the guests who are invited to the Human Rights Day, become indirect beneficiaries of the program through participation in the Human Rights Day activities. The parents of the target group are invited to the school from time to time and provided with information on the nature of activities involved in. It is in this manner that the parents' permission is sought to send the students out on field activities.

   The other teachers of the school staff who are not directly involved in the human rights education program are encouraged to join the program at various stages. For example, during the field activities, it will be necessary to obtain assistance of at least two teachers other than the two who are officially in the program.

   It will be absolutely essential to call the assistance of the art teacher for an art exhibition, and the assistance of the teachers of dancing and music for the production of plays to be staged on the Human Rights Day.

   Thus, the other teachers of the staff of the school also become indirect beneficiaries. It will inevitably follow that those teachers too acquire an interest and an awareness in human rights standards.


Initially, in 1994, the education program for schools commenced programs in 25 schools spread in six out of nine provinces in the country. The following are the districts thus covered:

  1. Western province;
  2. North Western province;
  3. North Central province;
  4. Southern province;
  5. Central province;
  6. Uva province.

   The schools were selected by the officials of the provincial education ministries, based on the criteria provided by the CSHR.

YearNo. of schoolsNo. of students per centerNo. of students total


   The second phase of the program commenced in 1995. Steps were taken to select schools covering the other three provinces as well and increasing the number of schools to 35. Though Sabaragamuwa and Eastern provinces were included in the program this year, the Northern province where a civil war is going on, had to be dropped out. The third phase of the program had ten more schools added to it thus increasing the total number of schools to 45. The following table illustrates the intake of trainees and schools to the program each year:

   When selecting schools, the following factors are considered whenever possible:

  1. selection of mixed schools;
  2. selection of a similar number of male and female schools;
  3. all should be senior secondary schools;
  4. selection of at least one Tamil medium school.

   A set of guidelines was formulated in selecting groups of students for the implementation of the program. Students who volunteer or are more inclined towards extra curricular activities are given priority. While students who lag behind in their studies are encouraged to join the program. Gender bias is not allowed in making the selection.

   The encouragement to students who are behind in their studies was done only in the first phase of the program. The popularity of the program tremendously increased the number of students who volunteered for the second and third phases of the program. CSHR had to ignore the other criteria in the process. However, CSHR advised schools to select an equal number for male and female students in order to give both of them equal opportunities.

   The period of the program was initially three months per year. The coordinators of each school program were free to select a minimum of four of the seven human rights themes they were introduced to. As an essential preliminary step, the program conductors and the CSHR held a workshop to design a work plan for the year. This enabled the CSHR to give due consideration to the feasibility and aptness of the proposed work plan of each school, to make alterations and improvements where necesarry, and to approve them before implementation.

   Though the number of activities was limited to four during a period of three months, many school centers implemented 10-12 activities without interrupting the school work.

   It appeared that one activity took three or four days. The activities were implemented after school hours, week holidays or term-end holidays.

   Usually, government offices closer to the school are chosen for the implementation of the program. The police station, state hospital, divisional secretariat are some of these. Shops, factories, orphanages, homes for elders, urban slums and farm lands are also selected. In some instances, certain factories and places of environmental pollution in far away areas are also visited.

   In these instances, the program coordinators had to seek the assistance of the following persons:

  1. other teachers of the school;
  2. past students;
  3. parents;
  4. officias of the education ministry.

Problems encountered

The main problem that the program coordinators faced was the fact that the students devoted their free time almost entirely to private tuition. It was also very difficult for trainers to organize activities without any interruption to the studies of the students. This was a reason for the initial tendency of the program conductors to incorporate students who are not very keen on studies in the program. However, by the time the program reached its second and third phases, total immersion in school studies ceased to be a problem probably due to the fact that the program strongly attracted students and delighted in it. Sometimes facts such as the monies invested in the activity, expenses incurred by the students, and their safety raised issues. However, these were minor issues that could be settled with a little advise or a small alteration in the program.

Reports and other program material

The schools have stored many of the materials developed under the program. They are valuable records of the human rights education program. They consist mainly of:

  1. students' field record books;
  2. group reports;
  3. artistic re-creations such as songs, poems, sculptures, posters and paintings

   The CSHR has collected records on the training materials, courses and observation reports of the program coordinators on each visit made to these training centers.

   A video film has been made on the program to be used in the training sessions. A Human Rights Trainers' Manual for the schools has been compiled based on the trainors' training workshops organized by CSHR.

Observations, responses and remedies

This program was carried out in schools as an extra curricular activity. Therefore, to gauge the standard of achievement of project goals, it was necessary to use criteria different from those used for evaluation in the formal school curriculum.

   Basically three types of methodology were adopted for this purpose:

  1. The CSHR requested for group reports after each activity is performed by the trainee group in the school. These reports are commonly written as tutorials, and presented in the form of small booklets. Any person reading these booklets will find information in three main areas:
      a. the success or failure of methodologies adopted to design the field activities and to collect data;
      b. the data collected through the activity, their adequacy and relevance to the theme under exploration;
      c. the efficiency/inefficiency of the participants and program conductors as evident from their performance;
  2. The CSHR calls for individual reports from its officers who monitor these activities by visiting the places of activities and schools, and report back their personal observations on the activities. The significance of these reports is linked to the following:
      a. gauging the interest and the commitment of the program conductors (the school level officers who act as coordinators and field officers) towards the project;
      b. discerning the common attitudes of the trainee group, other students in the school, the school staff, and the parents to the program;
      c. identifying the basic principles that should be observed when effecting certain modifications or amendments to the program;
  3. Mid-term review meetings are conducted by the CSHR. It is at these meetings that the CSHR officers can listen to the program conductors expressing their ideas more freely and voluntarily than in reports. These meetings are usually held in Colombo, in the form of seminars which are attended by the field officers and coordinators of all school centers. These mid-term review meetings are quite significant to the program in several ways:
      a. through review meetings the human rights activists of all school centers are provided with an opportunity to meet together so that experiences of the trainers working on similar themes in different social and economic backgrounds are shared and discussed;
      b. trainers receive resources and opportunity through the review meetings to assess the level of their achievement through a relative analysis of the results obtained by adopting very different methodologies for similar kind of activities;
      c. It is at these meetings that the program conductors frankly reveal the problems they face and the obstacles that come their way. The reason behind this frankness may be the common inducement of an organizational strength conceived of a union of people with equal responsibilities and aims. Here they are able to express, sometimes through a colleague, matters they would feel reluctant to express individually.
   Though considering the variety of methodology used for observations it can be said that the program is well observed and sufficiently monitored by the CSHR, it has not been able to comply with all requests made by the trainers at the school centers. The most common problem is the CSHR's inability to provide adequate funds to meet the expenses of the field activities. A Coordinator or a field officer is paid a minimal sum of 850 Rupees a month (equivalent to 14.00 US dollars). They are paid only for a period of three months, though the school program takes about six months to complete.

   The ways in which the students and the teachers respond to the program can be generally analyzed into a variety of attitudes based on individuality. Those can be categorized as follows:

1. One of the views is that the fact that human rights training program is limited to education of human rights is an unavailing and futile task. Some mature students and young teachers share this view. They state that in a society where people's rights are in constant violation, the confinement of project mandate only to education without empowering them to act against violations leaves them in a difficult position as the society expects them, as the trainers and trainees of human rights, to act against the violations of rights. A young male teacher who is a human rights trainer in a school in North Central Province, was assaulted by a gang of thugs and just escaped death. As this was a powerful group with the protection of a politician, the police refused to record the complaint of the assaulted. It was apparent that the police officers have violated the fundamental rights of the teacher. He, being a trainer in human rights, requested from the CSHR to intervene on his behalf in this matter to secure his rights. The CSHR could not act within its mandate, and therefore its officers had to use their personal contacts to influence the higher authorities to take corrective measures against the police officers' misdeed.

   However, the CSHR saw much evidence that the program is effective not only in the short term, but also in the long term. For example, a school center in North Western Province did a field study on environmental rights and discovered the following facts:

  1. A small lake which supplied water to the school and the town in close proximity, was constantly being dirtied by the drainage system of the hospital which was directed to the lake;
  2. The lake was frequently used to wash the vehicles that travel past the lake;
  3. The lake was also spoiled by several cow sheds being built very close to it.
   The report compiled by the students comprised the above facts and a copy of the report was sent to the town council. Notwithstanding the simple manner of the request, immediate steps were taken by the authorities to remove the roots of this long standing environmental issue. This was revealed both by the reports of the students and the Coordinator of the school center at the review meeting. The CSHR noted with satisfaction that the program, in spite of its restricted mandate, achieved this good result.

   In another school in Kurunegala, the main city of North Western Province, the trainee group has achieved immediate results after reporting certain facts they had discovered during the field activity, to the town council. The students visited the Sunday fair of the city and observed that as the vendors use their hands to hold up the scales while measuring, the quantity received by the consumers is not accurate; in fact always less than the correct weight. When this report was sent to the town council, immediate steps were taken to provide them with rails and hooks to hang the scales properly.

   2. There were instances where certain school principals were anxious that the human rights training program would interfere with the smooth maintenance of discipline among students, and were reluctant to support the program. Their argument is that when the students begin to fight for their rights in the school the discipline would suffer and the school management will be in confusion. However, the CSHR used the opportunity of the review meetings to present them with examples of students who, schooled by instincts initiated from the human rights training program, act as prefects and effectively maintain the school discipline.

   Several school principals have reported their experiences reflecting the manner in which the human rights program helped to build up self discipline and a sense of dignity among students. One example thus brought up was the case of a human rights trainee group that took initiative in eliminating ragging, which had become an insoluble problem in the school. This indicates that the program has a direct influence on the attitude formation.

   3. Some of the Principals were not very pleased that the recent amendment to the Penal Code of Sri Lanka included a fundamental rights law related to torture which was relevant to school teachers. The CSHR was able to reassure them that in a country with Rule of Law it is the responsibility and obligation of the citizens to respect the state law and act accordingly.

   4. The country's period of terror in the recent past, as described in the background of the project, a period when even to talk about human rights was considered an anti-government act, has left many dark memories. Those have gradually faded. However shadows of these fears are still lurking in the minds of the some parents, as is apparent from their deep anxiety about the safety of their children who are going to be involved in the human rights program. The CSHR always insist that these training programs are inaugurated in schools formally, with the parents of the students and the CSHR officers invited to the program. The CSHR officers explain the program, its mandate, its importance and benefits, and also its contemporary value, so that the parents can be reassured about the safety of their children. Opportunities were given to the parents to express their views through discussions.

   In the mid-term review meetings the teachers did not hesitate to reveal that the program helped to develop the skills of writing, reading, delivering speeches, acting, etc. This was obvious to the CSHR when it visited the school centers on the Human Rights Day. A school center in North Western Province conducted a human rights day program which included a short play. This was a comedy of 15 minutes. It was a brilliant presentation of the themes "no one should be discriminated" and "law should protect everyone." This kind of achievement managed to appease those who opposed the program.

   However, the future of the program is not very clear due to the fact that neither the human rights program is included in the formal school curriculum yet, nor any steps been taken to do so by the State Education Ministry.

   The CSHR, in the University of Colombo is conducting the project entirely from foreign grants received by the University. There is no assurance of continuation of the project with further funding once the grants are stopped.

   On the other hand, the education system in Sri Lanka is exclusively designed to cater to several highly competitive national level examinations, and its focus is not on the formation of well-balanced personalities. Without a properly focused education system, it is difficult to form a society aware of its obligations. One cannot expect the situation of human rights in the country to be good if the society is not law- abiding. Considering these facts, the government has incorporated several human rights concepts very briefly in the school curriculum from grade 6 to grade 11. However these are purely examination-oriented and do not focus on attitude formation. The significance of the CSHR program is that it was adopted to alter the behavior patterns of the students, and thus the need for activity method of learning is not so slight.