In the 1960s, the struggle was for black civil rights. The 1970s saw the stepping up of the fight to free the world from apartheid. And in recent years, we have seen the battle for LGBT equality.
The freedom struggle of the coming decade is the battle for the rights of children – rights too often neglected or ignored. By fulfilling our promise to a deliver a quality education to the world’s young, we can be the first generation in history where every child goes to school.
More effective mechanisms
For years, global leaders repeated the mantra that education is the most important – and the most cost-effective, anti-poverty investment we can make and the greatest anti-poverty instrument we have.
And yet, we have failed to deliver. Today, there are more out-of-school primary-age children than five years ago: 61 million children between the ages of five and 11 have yet to be enrolled in school. In total, there are more than 263 million school-age children who are outside the classroom.
Indeed, we have enshrined our promise for a universal right of schooling in both the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and now, the Sustainable Development Goals. Our pressure has been ineffective even in countries where millions of children are condemned to child labour, child marriage and child trafficking when they should be at school.
The Third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides a mechanism through which children and their families can petition the Committee on the Rights of the Child if denied the right to education.
For decades the plight of the displaced and refugee child has been neglected. In fact, we do the least for the children of the world who are most vulnerable and most in need.
Now, the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, convened by the governments of Norway, Malawi, Indonesia and Chile, proposes to entrench in our global system of rules and responsibilities a new right that will hold countries to account where the human rights of children continue to be systematically violated.
Every year in the future, the UN Security Council, Human Rights Council and General Assembly will be obliged to scrutinise countries’ educational progress to our goal of universal educational provision, and every year, they will have a duty to draw attention to human rights violations which prevent the realisation of our goal.
Learning from what the UN Security Council has done under Graca Machel’s leadership to expose the denial of the rights of children caught in conflicts, the UN Security Council will have a duty to shine an international spotlight on those countries where girls are subjected to early marriage and their educations are cut short – or when nine, 10, 11, and 12-year-olds are taken out of school and forced into child labour in factories and fields and mines and workshops.
Neglecting millions of children
Upholding a child’s basic right to education is even more important where children are displaced and exiled from their homes.
Today, there are 30 million children – 20 million of whom are displaced from their homes, schools and communities in their own countries, and another 10 million wandering the world as refugees – exiled from their country.
If history is a guide, these children will be prevented from returning to their home country for 10 years or more. Many refugee boys and girls will go through their whole school-age years without ever entering a classroom.
For decades, the plight of the displaced and refugee child has been neglected. In fact, we do the least for the children of the world who are most vulnerable and most in need.
Under provision for the education of refugee boys and girls is not an accident: They fall through the net – caught between a system of humanitarian aid that understandably focuses on food, shelter and ill-health and thus basic survival, and a development aid system that works long term and is slow to react to emergencies when they arise.
Only 1.5 percent of humanitarian aid goes to education, denying us the $400m in extra funds we urgently need to respond to the 21 emergency appeals for education aid.
Without schools, society will fall
In the last few weeks, far-sighted development agencies and international institutions have come together to create the new Education Cannot Wait fund destined to make good the gaps in educational opportunities for refugee children.
But we have yet to raise the funding even for the largest group of refugee children – the two million Syrian boys and girls now in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
So, in a few days’ time, the school year starts in Lebanon. Fortunately, over 200,000 refugee children are being taught in what are called double-shift schools in Lebanon. Syrian children learn in Arabic in the afternoons in the same classrooms where their Lebanese counterparts are instructed in French and English in the mornings.
But 100,000 more children who could be enrolled, and for whom teachers are available, thanks to the Lebanese Minister for Education Elias Bou Saab, will be shut out of school this academic year unless new funding becomes available to pay salaries. Yet, it costs a mere $10 per week to educate one refugee.
With no school places for their children, parents will feel under pressure to take the long and dangerous death voyages to Europe.
With no school places, young people will fall prey to extremist factions determined to exploit their discontents and assert that coexistence between the religions of the world is impossible.
Without school places, the hope that exists in children, when they can prepare and plan for their future, will be destroyed.
For centuries, children have had to suffer silently as their rights are violated and neglected. In this decade, we have it in our power to be the first generation in history where every child can go to school.
As our global commission recommends, we should accept responsibility to provide for every child and give every boy and girl a childhood.
Gordon Brown is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Global Education and the former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.