The Purpose of Module 20

The purpose of this module is to provide a perspective on the impact of education in the re­alization of ESC rights and to suggest ways to develop educational programs for the ad­vancement of rights.

This module

  • examines the role of education in undermining as well as enhancing human dignity;
  • identifies elements of an educational practice for a rights-based approach; and
  • suggests some creative ways of conducting a human rights education program.


The salience of human rights has contributed to the development of numerous initiatives to further popularize the notion and principles of human rights.  One such initiative was under­taken by the United Nations when it designated the period 1995-2004 as the Decade for Hu­man Rights Education.  Other initiatives have included the development of national action plans by governments and educational programs conducted by local nongovernmental groups.  In addition, organizations and groups working with specific sectors or issues-for example, children’s rights groups, women’s groups and trade unions-regularly conduct educational programs.  These initiatives have helped popularize human rights and have con­tributed to the increased recognition and legitimacy of rights language. They have, moreover, resulted in the production of a multitude of teaching and learning materials for use in human rights education programs.  Some of these materials are based on the underlying principle that human rights education should seek to empower individuals and groups. [1]

This module focuses on the need for activists to critically examine the notion of education, and particularly that of human rights education.  Ultimately ESC rights will be advanced by those who are deprived of their enjoyment, and activists should be aware that through educa­tion programs they are merely facilitating a process of empowerment.  This module provides some ideas that might be used in reflecting on education for empowerment.

Human Rights Education

Human rights education is a process of acquiring relevant knowledge, skills and values for knowing, asserting and vindicating one’s rights based on international human rights norms.  This definition implies that human rights are empowerment tools.  Therefore human rights education by its very nature should be a positive intervention in the lives of people. As was already mentioned, there are some efforts to develop human rights education based on the principles of participation and empowerment. [2]   However, most often programs conducted by

What did you learn in school today?

What did you learn in school today,

Dear little boy of mine?

What did you learn in school today,

Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that Washington never told a lie,

I learned that soldiers seldom die.

I learned that everybody’s free,

That’s what the teacher said to me,

And that is what I learned in school today,

That is what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today,

Dear little boy of mine?

What did you learn in school today,

Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that policemen are my friends,

I learned that justice never ends,

I learned that murderers die for their crimes,

Even if we make a mistake sometimes,

And that is what I learned in school today,

That is what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today,

Dear little boy of mine?

What did you learn in school today,

Dear little boy of mine?

I learned our government must be strong,

It’s always right and never wrong,

Our leaders are the finest men,

And we elect them again and again,

And that is what I learned in school today,

That is what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today,

Dear little boy of mine?

What did you learn in school today,

Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that war is not so bad,

I learned about the great ones we have had,

We fought in Germany and in France,

And someday I might get my chance,

And that is what I learned in school today,

That is what I learned in school. [3]

governments and international agencies are based on the assumption that dissemination of information on human rights standards is an end in itself; human rights education becomes a panacea for all the human rights problems of different societies.  Increased availability of in­formation on human rights is, of course, a positive result arising from this approach.  How­ever, human rights education is often used in such contexts as an excuse for avoiding under­lying structural factors that are at the root of the human rights problems.

What is often missing among those advocating human rights education is a debate on the education practice itself.  Human rights education is a relatively new field, which has emerged as a result of the prominence achieved by human rights in the last few decades.  Human rights education by and large has become an article of faith, with the result that little debate has taken place on the meaning of education itself.

Education is not a neutral enterprise

Education is integral to preparation for and legitimization of particular forms of social life. [4]   The idea that education is part of the social process is best reflected in the folk song, which was popular in the United States in the 1960s, reprinted on the preceding page.

It is important to begin with a discussion on educational practice as a form of "cultural poli­tics.”  Take the case of literacy, which is normally seen as essential for enabling a person to function fully in his/her society.  Literacy associated with multiple skills and knowledge is often reduced to the ability to read and write in the official state language.  This understand­ing of literacy developed in the last two centuries with the formation of the nation-state, in­dustrialization and mass schooling.  This process has destroyed the pluralistic notion that a person may have other knowledge and skills, even while being unable to read and write.  Furthermore, literacy, schooling and education became linked to the idea of individual re­sponsibility and economic well-being; illiterates are seen as carrying "society’s evils.” [5]  

Instead of denying, weakening or distorting human capacities, an educational practice can, in contrast, contribute to the realization of a variety of differentiated human capacities.  By en­couraging the development of competencies and capabilities, it can expand the meaning of what it is to be human.  Thus, education can and should be an empowering process, one that enables those who have been marginalized in the economic, social, political and cultural spheres to claim their status as full participating members of a community.

Intervention in ESC Issues-A Question of Perception

In dealing with ESC-related issues, activists should be aware that their mode of intervention will be determined by their perception of an ESC issue and of the affected people.  The fol­lowing chart shows how perception determines the type of intervention chosen to deal with social and economic problems. [6]



Circumstances beyond the control of the people (natural disaster and bad luck)

To relieve immediate suffering through relief and charity

Lack of education and motivation of people; low level of resources

To raise production through provision of vocational education and income-generating activities, savings and credit

Poor functioning or lack of delivery of health, education and agricultural services.

To make existing programs work better and provide alternative services such as health care, legal advice and establishment of citizen’s committees for strengthening the delivery of services

Exploitation and inequality

To overcome exploitation and inequalities by mobilization (political parties, movements and awareness-raising programs)

Structural problems (unjust structures)

Building new economic, political, legal and educational structures through mobilization and conscientization programs as well as new forms of education

From the above table, it is clear that the type of intervention selected to deal with ESC issues will also determine the nature of educational practice.  For example, a relief and charity ap­proach could often lead to a top-down educational practice.  Similarly, income-generation activities and provision of services could entail technical or extension education. 

A rights-based approach, on the other hand, will require an educational practice that encour­ages a participatory process in defining the issue and the actions to be taken. 

Some Elements of an Educational Practice for a Rights-Based Approach

People are the richest resource for learning

In their lives, people gather a large body of knowledge and experience.  Educational practice works best and goes deepest when it builds on this foundation.  The content of education must be based on people’s current concerns and apply to real-life experience.

A Dialogue with a Tribal Person

The following is a dialogue with a tribal person in India. Lakshmi and Swaraswati are the Hindu goddesses of wealth and knowledge respectively. Sawkar is the money-lending landlord or trader.

Question: Do you know who is Lakshmi and who is Swaraswati?
Tribal: Yes.

Question: Who is Lakshmi?
Tribal: Rice, clothes, hut.
Question: And Swaraswati?
Tribal: Sawkar's knowledge.

Question: If you could have only one of them, which one?
Tribal: Swaraswati.

Question: Why?
Tribal: If everyone has knowledge, then no one can cheat others. Then only we can have true equality. 7


Educational practice is not to be seen as a mere transmission of knowledge from the human rights activist to others who need his/her knowledge.  It is not appropriate to see the activist as possessing all essential information and the people as "empty vessels” needing to be filled up with knowledge.  The human rights activist provides a framework in which thinking, creative, active participants consider a common problem and find solutions.  S/he raises questions: why, how, who?  The people are active, describing, analyzing, suggesting, plan­ning and deciding. 

Dialogical process

An educational practice that is participatory has to be a dialogue, not a one-sided affair.  A participatory process implies that it should be an interactive process through which people reflect on their situation, become able to understand their situation more fully, act on it and transform it.  A dialogical process also implies that equality is practiced while respecting dif­ferences. 

Faith in human beings

A dialogical process "requires intense faith in human beings; their power to make and re­make, to create and recreate; faith that the vocation to be fully human is the birthright of all people, not the privilege of an elite.”8  Respect for people has to be an essential element of human rights education, since the latter advocates the inherent dignity of human beings.  Lack of trust in people would lead to abandoning dialogue and, instead, using slogans, monologues and instructions.9

The following real-life experience illustrates the importance of listening to people while helping them to act on issues that concern them. 

In Uganda, a village had numerous problems in both the health field (all types of worms, malaria, no clinic) and a very poor school from which the teachers were nearly always absent.  In a village meeting the people really did insist that their top priority was to make a football field.  I was appalled but the community development worker very wisely encouraged the group to go ahead.  They made their football field, started playing football, organized a team, played matches against other villages.  The football field was a turning point in the life of the village.  They had gained self-con­fidence, a structure for communicating with one another, and a sense that they were capable of changing things.  Later they tackled many other, "more important” proj­ects.  But were they really more important?  Was not their own intuition that they needed something that would build their own sense of themselves as a community, and their confidence that they could achieve their own goals, far more important than my outsider priority that they needed a clinic.  This was also a turning point in my own education about how to work with communities.10

Facilitating critical thinking

In enabling those who are marginalized to become more fully human, it is essential to facili­tate not only action, but also critical reflection on the consequences of the action.  Facilitating critical reflection is an essential element of educational practice.  It contributes not only to learning but to what Paulo Freire calls the "act of knowing.”  Knowing is not merely speak­ing about reality.  Knowing is grasping the contradictions of reality, including the interests of power.11

Conscientization is a process by which a fragmented understanding of reality is changed into a critical understanding of reality.  Developing critical thinking is part of the conscientization process.  As Paulo Freire explains,

In the case of consciousness alone, our reading is naïve, whereas consciousness com­bined with conscientization gradually makes us more critical. 

This explains why illiterate communities, having suffered injustice, attribute the hun­ger that destroys them to destiny, fate or God.  Only in the struggle for survival do they begin to overcome the naïve and magical perception of the phenomenon.  Con­scientization changes one’s perception of the facts, based on a critical understanding of them. 

A person who has reached conscientization is capable of clearly perceiving hunger as more than just not eating, as the manifestation of a political, economic, and social re­ality of deep injustice.  If that person believes in God and prays, his or her prayer will certainly focus on asking for the strength to fight against the deprivation of dignity to which he or she is subjected.  The person who has reached conscientization and is also a believer in God sees God as a presence in history, but not one that makes his­tory in lieu of men and women’s actions. 

The person who has reached conscientization is able to connect facts and problems and to understand the connections between hunger and food production, food produc­tion and agrarian reform, agrarian reform and reactions against it, hunger and eco­nomic policy, hunger and violence, hunger as violence, hunger and the conscious vote for progressive politicians and parties, hunger and voting against reactionary politi­cians and parties, whose discourse may be deceptively progressive. 

A person who has reached conscientization has a different understanding of history and of his or her role in it.  He or she will refuse to become stagnant, but will move and mobilize to change the world.  He or she knows that it is possible to change the world, but impossible without the mobilization of the dominated.  He or she knows very well that victory over misery and hunger is a political struggle for the deep trans­formation of society’s structures.12 

From the preceding it will be evident that human rights education is ultimately about consci­entization.  Human rights education is an empowering and creative project.  It is not about mechanically transferring texts of covenants and conventions. It is also essential to remember that the language used for facilitating learning may itself reflect hidden biases and may even become a means of control and domination.  This is best reflected in education programs conducted for indigenous people or tribals in the official state language. In the process of en­suring that the indigenous people are literate in the official language, their local language and culture may be undermined.  Language is not neutral and those engaged in conducting edu­cation programs should be sensitive to this.  

Human Rights Education and ESC Rights Activism

A creative and empowering human rights education program will integrate education into all aspects of ESC rights activism-identifying the relevant ESC issues, monitoring the extent to which ESC rights are enjoyed, and mobilizing and organizing to ensure their enjoyment.  ESC rights activists can divide their intervention into different stages, integrating human rights education at each stage.  It is assumed that ESC rights activism will involve ongoing interaction with the affected communities.  The stages of intervention are not separate but complement one another.

The suggested stages are:

1.  Building involvement of affected people

This stage is important for ensuring a lasting link between the affected people and the activ­ist.  This period enables grassroots leadership to emerge.  Human rights education at this stage should help a community discover and use all its potential for creative and constructive teamwork.  This would entail educational programs for helping members of the community reflect about leadership and acquire relevant knowledge and skills.  Needless to say, this is a continuous process strengthened by constant reflection. 

2.  Learning to observe their reality

This stage is important for helping the affected people or community identify their own needs and problems.  For example, members of the community could be helped to conduct their own research.  As an example, a group working in the northeastern states of India helped the local people conduct a survey on the workings of the public distribution system or shops that provided subsidized rice and other food items.  Based on the survey, the community identi­fied several changes that would ensure better functioning of the shops.  They also identified actions to be taken at various levels.  Conducting the survey required input from activists who were not from the community.13 However, once skills such as these are developed, they can be used for continuous monitoring of the enjoyment of ESC rights.

3.  Understanding the larger reality

This stage is for enabling the affected people or community to understand the link between the problems they face and the larger ("macro”) systems.  It is important to ensure that the community understands the complexity of the problem and devises its strategy accordingly.  For example, people could be helped to understand the link between the lower price they get for their products and globalization.  This stage is important for examining social and eco­nomic policies, including the national budget, from the perspective of the enjoyment of ESC rights.

4.  Setting goals-planning and implementing actions

In this stage, the affected people or community is helped to develop an appropriate strategy for ensuring the enjoyment of ESC rights.  Strategies may range from mobilization for the enactment of new laws or policy, litigation, use of other national institutions, seeking the in­tervention of United Nations or regional human rights mechanisms, or intervening with mul­tilateral financial institutions.

It is important to remember that affected people or mem­bers of a community should be involved in all stages-from identifying a strategy, to implementing it and learning lessons from actions taken. 

Human Rights Education as a Creative Enterprise

Finally, we should reiterate that human rights educa­tion should be a creative process.  Activists should learn from groups (such as women’s groups, adult educa­tion groups) that are engaged in creative edu­cational prac­tice. 

Simple techniques could help generate reflec­tion and contribute to learning and empowerment.  The following are some ex­amples:

• A discussion on breathing

In an education program, the participants who were from a rural area were asked when it is they breathe freely and when they feel constricted.  For most, it was the first time they had reflected on their own breathing.  The answers brought out inter­esting elements for further discussion.  Participants said they normally breathe freely when they are happy, playing, part of a creative process or with friends.  They feel constricted when they are short of money, when their children are sick, and in similar difficult situations.  It was mentioned that poor people, as a result of their occupa­tions, tend more often to breathe in polluted air-thus, the situation of workers and other disadvantaged groups emerged out of the discussion on breathing.  It was also pointed out that women always feel constricted, since they face many restrictions and also deal with family burdens.  The group pointed out that in their community, men normally say "Don’t breathe” when they want the woman to keep quiet or stop her from expressing her opinion.  Thus, the gender element also emerged in the discus­sion.14

This is a simple exercise that could deal with most aspects of ESC rights.

Understanding caste distinctions through village mapping

In another education program, village mapping of water resources was done to facili­tate discussion on caste distinctions that existed in the area.  The participants were asked to examine the politics of control over water resources in the village.  The dis­cussion led to analyzing notions of purity and pollution, of unch (high caste) and neech (low caste).  The facilitators provided the participants with information on various castes in the region and also a historical perspective on the caste system.15

Use of stories and fables

A women’s group working on women’s health issues uses the following fable to fa­cilitate discussion among poor rural women regarding injustice they often experience.  It is a fable with animal characters, Sister Goose and Uncle Fox:

Sister Goose offends Uncle Fox, who is rich and powerful.  She is dragged to the police station, where Inspector Fox files several charges against her that she hardly understands.  She is summoned to the magistrate’s court and de­spite all her arguments to prove her innocence, Magistrate Fox pronounces her guilty.  Angered by the injustice done to her, Sister Goose decides to appeal to higher courts for justice.  She has little money and she mortgages all her valu­ables with Moneylender Fox, who willingly lends her money at an exorbitant rate of interest.  Judge Fox of the high court accuses Sister Goose of antisocial tendencies and actions, and declares that people like her are a threat to the very fabric of society.  She is punished with rigorous imprisonment for two years.

The fable is read to the participants in a play-reading style with different people lending voices to different characters.  A poster depicting the different scenes is also prominently displayed before them. 

The story may appear simplistic, but it normally strikes a familiar chord with poor ru­ral women.  They narrate similar episodes from their lives.  The participants analyze the story and conclude that the poor often do not realize what they are up against until they chance to confront the system.  When a lone victim naively seeks justice, as Sister Goose did, he/she finds himself/herself overpowered and beaten.  The mistake Sister Goose made was that she fought her battle alone.  If she had had the support of others like her, the outcome would probably have been different.16 

Simulation exercises

The following simulation exercise could be used for generating discussion on the ques­tion of access to resources-an important discussion in ESC rights.  The exercise can be done with twenty persons. A large sheet of white paper and twenty-four different colored crayons will be required.

In step one, divide the participants into three groups.  The first group, called "Apple,” should have two persons.  The second group-"Mango”-should have six persons, and the third group-"Banana”-should have eleven persons.

In the next step, give the white sheet and all the crayons to the Apple group.  Ask them to use as many crayons as possible and draw something within four minutes.

When the Apple group finishes, give the same sheet and the unused crayons to the Mango group.  They should draw on the leftover spaces and not on the drawing of the previous group. They will be given only three minutes to complete their drawing.

After the three minutes, the sheet and the unused crayons should be given to the Banana group.  They should draw on the space not used by the previous two groups. This group will be given two minutes.

Finally, the picture should be displayed so that everyone can see it.  The facilitator should analyze the process by asking the participants,  "What were the resources available for the group and how were they distributed?” The discussion should then lead on to avail­ability of resources and conflicts that take place due to demand for natural and other re­sources.17

These are just a few examples to show that numerous creative programs exist which activists can adopt for conducting human rights education.  Developing and implementing a creative educational practice is part of the challenge for those working to advance ESC rights.

Author: The author of this module is D. J. Ravindran.



1. See, for example, Richard Pierre Claude, Popular Education for Human Rights: 24 Participar­tory Exercises for Facilitators and Teachers (Amsterdam and Cambridge: Human Rights Educa­tion Associates, 2000).

2. Ibid. 

3. Taken from Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (London: Penguin, 1971).

4. Roger I. Simon, "Empowerment as a Pedagogy of Possibility,” Language Arts 64, no. 4 (April 1987).

5. Kathleen Rockhill, "Gender, Language and the Politics of Literacy,” in Cross-Cultural Ap­proaches to Literacy, ed. Brian V. Street (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 156-75.

6. Adapted from Ann Hope, Training for Transformation-A Handbook for Community Workers  (Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press, 1984).

 7.        Rahman, Md. A., "Theory and Practice of Participatory Action Research,” WEP 10/Wp.29 (Ge­neva, ILO 1983), quoted in Stan Burkey, People First: A Guide to Self-Reliant Participatory Ru­ral Development (London: Zed Books, 1993), 62.

8.  Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, translated by Myra Bergman Ramos (London: Penguin, 1972).

9.  Ibid.

10. Hope, op. cit., 71.

11. Paulo Freire, "Dialogue is not a Chaste Event,” in Comments by Paulo Freire on Issues in Par­ticipatory Research, compiled by Paul Jurmo (University of Massachusetts, Amherst: Center for International Education, 1985).

12. Paulo Freire, Letters to Cristina-Reflections on My Life and Work (New York: Routledge, 1996).

13. Narrated by N. B. Sarojini, SAMA, New Delhi

14. From a workshop organized by NIRANTAR, A Centre for Women and Education, New Delhi.

15. Windows to the World-Developing a Curriculum for Rural Women (New Delhi: NIRANTAR, 1997).

16. T. K. Sundari Ravindran, "Subverting Patriarchy”: Workshops for Rural Women (Tamil Nadu, India: Rural Women’s Social Education Centre, 1997).

17. This exercise was suggested by N. B. Sarojini, SAMA, New Delhi.

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