Education is a fundamental human right of every child. A quality basic education better equips girls and boys with the knowledge and skills necessary to adopt healthy lifestyles and take an active role in social, economic and political decision-making as they transition to adolescence and adulthood. Educated adults are more likely to have fewer children, to be informed about appropriate child-rearing practices and to ensure that their children go to school.
UNICEF’s approach is to ensure that every child – regardless of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background or circumstances – has access to a quality education. Its focus on equity highlights the importance of education for any society as a primary tool for empowerment and transformation and its essential role in breaking inter-generational cycles of poverty and deprivation. Across the world and over time education, and in particular the education of girls, has been shown to be a prerequisite for improving the lives of all children in multiple ways, including reduced child mortality and under-nutrition and improved maternal health.
Why partner with religious communities for education?
“ . . . most religious tradition, scriptures, and leaders have a deep commitment to education. Their history is the history of education and the oft-stated commitment to human dignity and the development of human potential are what education is about.” *
Education has been an integral aspect of all the major faith traditions, with religious schools providing the foundation for the modern school movement and also being among the first institutions to offer basic schooling for girls. Sharing the insights of prophets, messengers and other founders of religious traditions was, in itself, an educational process. The emphasis on learning from sacred texts, interpreting religious jurisprudence and contributing to the body of knowledge each faith possesses required systems of learning to become increasingly formalized.
Today, the hundreds of thousands of schools around the world run by religious communities represent an important constituency in educational programming, though in many places child rights organizations may have little interaction with them given political or other sensitivities.
Across countries religious and faith-based schools are often the providers of various social protection components of education such as reduced school fees, credit or loan schemes for poor families and nutritious feeding programmes in schools. This makes religious institutions particularly significant in their ability to increase access for children in lower-income countries. “Pertinent models like the Fe y Alegria and Christo Rey systems in Christianity, and the Gulen movement and varying Islamic systems in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and India, illustrate the constructive roles faith institutions can play in meeting service delivery challenges for the poorest populations.”
However, just as it is important to highlight the positive role religious schools can have, it is also important to address the potential negative impacts of religious schools. For example, learning may be confined to memorizing religious texts or children may be subjected to corporal punishment.
Even in working with public/secular schools in predominantly religious contexts, establishing relationships with religious communities can be an important step in finding common ground for developing sound educational programming. Theologians and religious educators in particular, as opinion leaders, can spearhead efforts to develop curricula and translate fundamental concepts of child rights and equitable access to education for all – especially the most vulnerable and marginalized children – into language appropriate to their communities.
What can religious communities do to promote education?
*Marshall, Katherine, ‘Education for All: Where does religion come in?’ Comparative Education, vol. 46, no. 3, August 2010, p. 285