By Bala Sai:
Last week saw the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize being shared by two luminous personalities, two people who dedicated their lives to fighting for the rights of others. More than recognizing their sacrifices, it reminded us of what it means to be human. It reminded us of the struggles of people across the world for their basic rights, something that every human being deserves, regardless of gender, ethnicity and financial status- the dignity of being human.
India is a land of differences. For centuries together, we have transcended ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic differences to forge a diverse society that was built on tolerance towards one another. Our constitution enshrines equality as one of the pillars of the democracy. Yet, here are some latest numbers:
India is ranked 143rd in a list of 162 countries in the Global Peace Index, which means there are only 19 countries that are ranked as more violent in the world. Irrespective of whichever survey you find, India features among the top-ten most racist countries in the world. Crime rate in India is 45.26, more than twice of China, which has a substantially larger population. Increasing cases of rapes across the country have shamed us and severely tarnished our image as an emerging, progressive economy. India is 129th out of 146 countries according to the Gender Inequality Index, and has the dubious reputation of being the lowest ranked country in the subcontinent, barring Afghanistan.
These statistics are extremely worrisome, considering that India is one of the fastest developing economies in the world and aims to emerge as a leading global power. What has lead to this situation? We can no longer blame our history, given that two-thirds of our population is below 35 years of age. Communal tensions, ethnic violence, crimes against women, all are different facets of the core issue— our failure to acknowledge the rights of others. This is where Human Rights Education comes into perspective.
Human Rights awareness assumes great importance given the changing dynamics of today’s society. With increasing influence of factors like globalization, urbanization and migration, there is a greater interaction among people of different cultures and ethnicities and it becomes essential for individuals to develop tolerance and respect and appreciate each other’s differences, all of which begin with the basic understanding of equality and human rights. This has to be ingrained in our consciousness right from a young age, and the best way to do that is through education.
There is a reason why the Human Development Index (HDI) includes ‘mean years of schooling’ as one of the three main parameters used to gauge a country’s level of development. Education is not merely about cramming book-loads of data and mastering mathematics. Education is a wholesome process where children develop perspectives and opinions about the world around them. It is the duty of our education system to guide their young, impressionable minds and induce them to imbibe values that will shape their personalities and their outlook towards others. This is the reason that developing mutual respect among peers is a very important step towards achieving harmony in the society.
The basic structure of education in our country is based on competition for grades. Children are constantly under pressure to excel, which inadvertently pits one student against the other, creating divisions and tensions among them. They end up giving more value to success and failure than to interpersonal relationships.
An efficient Human Rights Education should go beyond providing mere technical definitions to promoting communication, developing sensitivity, conflict prevention and conflict resolution, sharing, building respect for others, handling responsibility and learning to empathize with others.
Such values can’t be taught by mere textbooks. They need to be gradually cemented in young minds through experience and interactions. Schools provide the ideal environment where students are exposed to such diversity. Human Rights education can be effective only if it is communicated interactively, so that it becomes a part of their principles, not just inside classrooms. At a young age, students will be able to understand and appreciate differences among themselves, preparing them for the world outside.
Countries around the world already have realized the importance of Human Rights Education in shaping young minds. In India, the awakening has just begun. Human Rights, for long has been sparsely addressed in our curriculum, generally limited to dry, pedantic definitions in Civics textbooks. Today, the National Human Rights Commission of India, the Indian Institute for Peace, Disarmament and Environmental Protection (IIPDEP), and many NGOs have begun the process of change.
Schools around the country are gradually waking up to the cause, with many choosing to implement extra-curricular programs and events to promote Human Rights Education with the support of several NGOs. One particularly heart-warming instance was the huge response to a letter writing marathon organized by Amnesty where school children participated extensively, demanding the release of Irom Sharmila, who has been fasting for the past 14 years to protest against the AFSPA.
Events like this are positive signals of change. It shows our commitment to not only informing our children, but also developing their opinions and views. Indian education is fast evolving, moving beyond imparting rigid, empirical data, to integrating knowledge with practice, with building values and morals that prepare our future generations to cope with the rich, diverse society and its many challenges. Human Rights education, undoubtedly, forms a major part of the change, as it rightly should.