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Starting with an analysis of two edited volumes on human rights education published twenty years apart, the article argues that academic scrutiny of the field has focused more on its potential than on its effectiveness on the ground. Using as optics, ideology, agency, universality, epistemology, and contextualization as well as two case studies, one on Bangladesh and the other on South Africa, the authors point to (a) the ongoing weakness of front line teachers' preparation to teach the uniquely normative character of human rights education and (b) the limited impact of research on human rights education at the delivery points. [End Page 195]


Over the last two decades human rights education (HRE) has flourished in many different contexts and parts of the world. The United Nations, for example, sponsored the 1995–2005 Decade of Human Rights Education1 and followed it with another, decade-long, UN World Programme for Human Rights Education.2 During this period, many governmental and non-governmental organizations developed HRE programs.3 This extensive engagement with HRE raises several questions related to its epistemological4 and pedagogical foundations and its subsequent evolution between 1995 and 2017. In particular for this essay, how has HRE evolved since 1995, and what lessons can be learnt from the experience of implementing HRE thus far?

Across the entire field of HRE, there are some clear common denominators, such as the definition of the core content of HRE and the corpus of human rights norms and institutions brought into being by the world's sovereign states and incorporated into both international and domestic legal systems beginning in 1948. These provisions generally recognize HRE as the major, if not also the most necessary, tool for popularizing and giving effect to the universal human rights regime. Human rights educators also agree on the need for such education at all levels of primary, secondary, tertiary, professional, and adult education. There is considerable consensus among human rights educators that the content of HRE extends beyond the transmission of knowledge to include relevant values, behavior, skills, and attitudes. This leads to the questions of whether, and, if so, how HRE differs from traditional education offered through the world's standard mainstream national education systems.

Given that HRE has been on the international stage even before the beginning of the 1995–2005 UN Decade of Human Rights Education, the time has certainly come for a critical examination of its achievements. This article takes three of HRE's main distinguishing characteristics as its emphasis, namely ideology, agency, and universal validity. The ideological dimension reflects not only the inherent normative character of human rights standards and institutions, but also the particular ways in which they are organized at points of delivery, namely by administrators and teachers in their syllabi and classroom practices. The agency factor recognizes the degree to which the promotion of actual social change involving political and socio-economic [End Page 196] empowerment outside the classroom are inherent in most HRE programs, although across programs the goals and strategies will vary or even be at odds. Universality is the often-disputed claim that human rights principles and practice trump other discordant values and customs, thus entrenching the human rights regime as a universal political and ethical culture. These three characteristics suggest that HRE may challenge and even seek to displace some pre-existing local attitudes, values, beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. Moreover, with its commitment to agency, HRE seeks to facilitate and promote the creation of activists and advocates, to whom in this article we refer to as "agents." HRE is not just a question of teaching and promoting a set of "universal" values. As will be illustrated in our cases, it must also reconcile those universal norms and practices with conditions on the ground, notably the needs and aspirations of local target communities. This tends to be called contextualization or sometimes, vernacularization.

We also acknowledge that HRE overlaps with other sub-fields of education such as peace education, citizenship education, development education, and conflict management. While they do often intersect in content and method, HRE is distinguished primarily by its defining reference point—namely the various codes of human rights spelled out in both national and international laws and practices. HRE practitioners also recognize that HRE is not a stand-alone activity. It draws on resources from the other fields such as peace education and conflict management. To be effective, HRE also depends on compatible and responsive political and economic systems, as both the human rights regime and HRE in particular spell out goals and approaches to social change that call for actions outside the classroom. HRE shares this emphasis on social action, sometimes referred to as transformative, with the sub-fields mentioned above. Transformative action, collaboration, advocacy, mobilization, community action, and political and economic emancipation are terms that are now used to describe and characterize forms of agency which form part of the HRE agenda. However, in current literature and educational practice, their respective meanings and use often vary. Contextualization is the process that adapts general principles to local needs and local problems.

Aside from physical parameters that govern human actions such as nature and the environment, the social, cultural, ethical, and legal norms that govern human interactions are both complex and multiplex. In today's globalized world, human beings are likely to take into consideration many sources of such norms to influence their own and their society's opinions, priorities, and actions. As HRE addresses the social and legal norms and practices that govern human relations, with rare exceptions, the norms and practices being introduced by a given program in HRE will conflict with, or at least be different from, those of the target community, resulting in a values gap. Otherwise, there would be no need for HRE. Thus, HRE is never value-neutral because it must deal consciously with often conflicting ethical [End Page 197] and legal reference points, whether it be between one right and another or between rights and other social priorities. A critical approach to HRE therefore must recognize and examine the underlying ideologies or frames of reference that influence choice among priorities and the resolution of conflicts that inevitably come up with the introduction of value laden HRE.

The three characteristics of HRE identified above—underlying ideologies, agency, and universality—are intimately related. In HRE, for example, agency is both a tool and a goal. It is a pedagogical tool used by instructors and trainers to enable learners to develop skills such as the advocacy needed to achieve individual emancipation and access to rights for communities. At the same time, as an educational goal, it determines the selection of the content in a given program. That selection is conditioned by a conscious assessment of the "values gap"5 between local values and "universal" human rights values. Selection of one set of goals, content, and method as opposed to another selection is inevitable because no single human rights program could possibly cover every topic in human rights. Programs and instructors have to make choices with regard to subject matter and instructional methodologies, both of which have implications for the learning that they want to take place and for how a given program incorporates agency for and by the target population. Indeed, practitioners find that agency and its contextualization are ideally best ensured by the early participation of target populations in the initial selection of goals, content, and method. How this is best achieved is beyond the scope of this article. However, our point is that the planning and design of a given program, at least implicitly, incorporate premises associated with all three of our reference points: ideology, universality, and agency.

To illustrate these three dimensions, we take as our primary academic reference points two volumes of collected essays on HRE, one published in 1995,6 edited by George J. Andreopoulos and Richard Pierre Claude, and the other published in 2017, edited by Monisha Bajaj.7 In addition, we use two case studies from Bangladesh and South Africa to examine how the concepts of universality, agency, and ideology are defined and addressed, that is vernacularized, using them to illustrate the pedagogical and epistemological evolution of HRE. We see promoting agency as well as the development of a universal human rights culture as being at the heart of HRE and therefore its actual application in practice, that is its contextualizing, as awaiting more critical examination. [End Page 198]


Our initial context for this article focuses on two main reference books, both edited volumes, each of which covers the broad field of HRE in both theory and practice. The former, edited by Andreopoulos and Claude, emerged just after the demise of the Soviet Union and the two major UN conferences in Vienna in 1993 on Human Rights8 and in Beijing in 1995 on Women's Rights.9 The second volume on HRE, edited by Bajaj, was published in 2017. The main and obvious difference is one of time, namely twenty-two years. The first was written from the perspective of an emerging global need for the popularization of human rights encouraged especially by the then-exploding numbers of human rights NGOs. To promote their work, the latter needed a more educated public both at home and abroad. The second volume reflects the more specific concerns and experiences of human rights educators since. Both volumes are richly eclectic in that is there is no attempt to impose a common frame of reference. Both place empowerment at the center of the HRE process; both recognize educational overlaps such as those with peace education and development.10 The earlier volume wrestles with the fact that HRE was spawned in law schools and thus curricula had to evolve to meet the needs of other constituencies and, particularly, to reflect the needs of the daily lives of their respective target populations, namely praxis.11 Both volumes reflect the influence of the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire, arguing that in the learning process the only person who really learns is s/he who is able to apply the appropriate learning to concrete existential situations.12 Already present in the first volume is the concept of agency, formulated as that "humans not only have the ability to know reality, but that they also have the capacity for critical reflection and action. Therefore, education aimed at developing this capacity must enable students to analyze the underlying structure of an action or experience."13 Equally clear in both volumes is the consciousness that successful HRE must be integrated with "all the resources available from different approaches while recognizing the uniqueness of each contribution."14 This again reflects the thinking of Freire, who affirmed that the key to the powerless confronting social contradictions is active reflection [End Page 199] on their part.15 The earlier 1995 volume is concerned with agency flowing from the education process. This can be seen in the chapter discussing the charter movements in South Africa which used HRE to mobilize different sectors of the population in the early years of post-apartheid South Africa.16 Overall, the Andreopoulos volume is more prescriptive and forward looking, while the Bajaj volume is able also to look back and evaluate the more than two decades of HRE. Both volumes provide examples of HRE at all levels of formal education as well as others of non-formal and informal education. Both underline the need for more rigorous assessment and evaluation. Nevertheless, there are differences.

To meet the need for HRE to be integrated into all levels of the traditional education systems, the 1995 Andreopoulos volume17 calls for specialized preand in-service training for teachers18 and trainers,19 including preparing them specifically to deal with the two roles of teacher and of advocate. These are categorically pedagogical tasks. The volume devotes considerable attention to grassroots, non-formal, human rights, and community education, linking them closely to the work of NGOs. One chapter is devoted to the importance of HRE for women. To emphasize that challenge of contextualization, the authors of that chapter conclude that the particular case that they describe "should not be duplicated in other areas without adequately evaluating the needs and expectations of the community within which it will be placed."20

The 1995 volume also includes a number of chapters on certain professions as target populations for HRE. It devotes whole chapters each to the police, to law enforcement, to the military, to journalists, to scientists, and to the public health professions.21 The final Chapter 30 examines the emerging rights issues stemming from migrant labor in Germany. Epistemological dimensions underpinning teaching methodologies are brought together in the volume in a chapter written by the long-time Chilean human rights educator Abraham Magendzo. From his home society then emerging from the Pinochet dictatorship, Magendzo writes:

Comprehending human rights comes with the realization of the contradictions present within a society where silence exists regarding human rights issues and yet human rights violations beg for attention. To understand these contradictions within a society, to understand the underlying ideology of these contradictions, and to offer possible solutions thereto are all central tasks to be put forward by HRE.22 [End Page 200]

His words underline both the epistemological challenge and the agency function of HRE as well as the likelihood that both content and subsequent action involve "contentious" social action. A subsequent chapter on the need for HRE in the former communist countries in Eastern Europe emphasizes its role as a means to change both the education system itself as well as the many other political and economic structures built under Soviet occupation.

The 2017 Bajaj volume offers reflections on diverse, mostly current HRE programs. Its authors also recognize HRE to be (a) still a work in progress; (b) facing the challenge of contextualization, that is adapting multiple general principles to the needs of a particular target population, including culturally congruent strategies so that HRE does not take place in a vacuum;23 (c) in need of greater institutional integration; (d) in need of adapting to and incorporating the new media; (e) lacking in needed human rights-specialized teacher training;24 and (f) in need of incorporating visions and aspirations that make the social change called for by human rights educators seen as an attainable objective in the eyes of target populations.25

The Bajaj volume frequently raises the epistemological problem of the relationship between educational theory and practice. Another question raised is whether research findings actually influence the design of HRE programs. An interesting debate and series of reflections appears with respect to how HRE differs from traditional forms of education and therefore requires special training on the part of the teachers.26 This debate comes out most vividly in examinations of teacher performance, especially when considered in light of the theories and praxis associated with Freire.27 In one study, for example, teachers in Senegal pointed out how, after specialized training, they had changed their whole approach to teaching to make it student—rather than subject—focused.28

The essays provide a useful list of the ongoing challenges involved in teaching human rights at the point of delivery, namely in the classroom. These included (a) the need to build trust;29 (b) the importance of giving more weight to students and their parents' views; (c) teaching empathy, compassion, and solidarity in the classroom;30 (d) the ability "to review the past, demystify it, and utilize it as input that can modify the present;"31 (e) pushing HRE beyond discussions about democracy, diversity, and equality; [End Page 201] (f) rethinking and reforming teaching and learning beyond test scores and developing human capital skills for the labor market; and (g) promoting school-wide approaches to a human rights culture. Elsewhere it is argued that all teachers ought to be able to make a clear and credible justification for the universality, indivisibility, and interdependence of rights, and to address problems associated with the hierarchical nature of governments that design HRE and curricula which do not emphasize critical thinking and social reform. It is therefore not surprising that such an inclusive agenda would result in the research that found that even teachers of human rights in both Scotland and Denmark felt ill-prepared to teach the topic.

The two volumes agree that the extensive current domestic and international human rights legislation calls for teaching human rights in ways that promote agency and advocacy outside the classroom and thus call for teachers with special skills such as being able to assess the relevant facts and the underlying causes, value conflicts, unexamined premises, social identity, and loyalties, as well as the relevant ethical and legal norms. Thus, as human rights praxis and agency require an astute selection of priorities and goals in terms of knowledge, skills, and behaviors, they must also call for special teacher training such as that received by teachers in the case study in Senegal which enabled them to radically change their approach to their students. No longer did they see students as needing just to be controlled. In the search to exemplify the goals of their HRE, the teachers sought to understand the reasons for the students' behavior.32

One challenge implied in the title of this article but only addressed in passing in the two volumes is the epistemological and pedagogical problems arising from the conflict with and the possible displacement of local knowledge and values by universal human rights values, creating a values debate. The word "ideology" is sometimes used to describe the danger of an educator bringing a particular complex of values, knowledge, skills, and a contextual narrative which incorporates unquestioned or pre-emptive premises and principles. The latter can reflect different religious, ethical, or political theories, as well as ethnic allegiances and cultural practices. Even human rights itself can be seen as an ideology in so far as it is a systematic set of ideas and social norms, albeit formulated as international law by the world's states, but with roots in western democratic principles. Ideology or not, as probably the most universally accepted set of norms of social justice, human rights defines a large complex of values and practices defining and enforcing standards of governance and social relations. Moreover, it is a regime that has received substantial international legal as well as ethical legitimacy. Thus, teachers can feel free to draw on and teach this body of knowledge and values knowing that it is an approved set of ideas and social norms. However, one only has to compare human rights curricula designed for comparable target populations to recognize that in practice there can still be very different selections from the now-extensive body of human rights [End Page 202] material available. In other words, this choice of content, not to mention of methods, made by a given program and even by each given teacher defines a program as much, if not more, than the generic concept of human rights. It is thus at the point of delivery, the meeting point between educators and their target populations, that any inherent bias and asymmetries, whether they are recognized or not, whether beneficial or detrimental, can be identified and evaluated.

While this is a problem implicit in all education, the epistemological issues associated with conflicting values, universal versus local culture and practice, for example, are the particular challenge for HRE. In practice, most HRE programs rely on instructors who come with their own resources and convictions, but they assume they share a common goal, namely the political and economic empowerment of the target community. To meet the challenge, human rights educators must expect there to be differences between the needs and agenda of local communities and those the educators offer33 and must be prepared to accordingly. Thus, the critique of HRE in general must also focus on the type and quality of training received by the teachers at the delivery points. Both volumes suggest this is inadequate.


The definition of HRE contained in the 2014 UN World Programme for Human Rights Education34 documents extends beyond acquiring knowledge and skills, and developing values, attitudes, and behavior that reinforce human rights, to include taking action to defend and promote human rights. This definition includes an explicit agency element that was absent from many earlier definitions of HRE. While the UN definition of HRE makes extensive use of words such as "culture," "values," "behavior," and "attitudes," definitions of their meaning are few and far between. More than on HRE, research on "values" has evolved over time, notably from definitions proposed by Milton Rokeach35 and the five constituent elements of values identified by Shalom Schwartz and Wolfgang Bilsky36 to the subsequent descriptions of values by Schwartz and Lilach Sagiv37 as "desirable goals, varying in importance, [End Page 203] that serve as guiding principles in people's lives."38 The term "attitudes" is often confused with "values" according to Meg Rohan,39 who suggests that attitude be applied in relation to specific contexts whereas values should be treated as more of an abstract term. An individual may therefore have numerous attitudes in relation to a select number of values. Harry Triandis defines "behavior" as an interaction between context on the one hand, and values that have been influenced by an individual's culture on the other.40 Peter Smith and Schwartz find that values are influenced by social contexts and that societal values reflect a particular society's culture.41 These concepts are used extensively in HRE. It is up to the individual instructor to clarify their meaning and the way they are being used in a given context. As their precise meanings are not likely to be consistent, teachers who use them need to "contextualize" them.

The epistemological problem is even greater with the word "culture." According to John Baldwin et al., there are approximately 500 definitions of culture.42 Most anthropologists recognize that culture is what is not natural, instinctual, or innate and therefore define culture as "an active process of meaning making and contest over definition, including its own definition."43 Kathryn Anderson-Levitt, however, argues that this accepted definition of culture needs to be problematized and considered in the context of power as well as the global-local nexus.44 She contests the generally accepted understanding of culture as "the making of meaning"45 and she critiques the notion that culture "has a life of its own"46 independent of human action. She argues that those with power are ultimately the ones who define culture and determine its universal applicability. Culture is thus one of the factors that contributes to asymmetry in an educational process when the instructor is the authority on meaning and the target population takes it as an unquestioned premise. No matter what one's goals and strategies are, the concept and understanding of the word culture is a challenge for HRE administrators and teachers.

Values, attitudes, behavior, and culture, intrinsically connected and complex concepts, are used in UN human rights documents and in many [End Page 204] definitions of HRE, but without any consistent agreement on their meaning. Values inform attitudes and behavior, but also reflect culture and cultural diversity. Consequently, when we consider the UN definition of HRE "as all forms of learning, education, training, or information efforts aimed at building a universal human rights culture,"47 it is imperative that human rights educators reflect critically on what constitutes the claim to a "universal" culture. How, for example, does building this universal culture influence the development of local human rights curricula? These questions can be addressed generically but the critical task is at the point of delivery, namely the content, attitude, and skills actually conveyed and assimilated in each HRE learning situation. In other words, the skills and capacity of each HRE instructor are critical.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR or Declaration), adopted in 1948, and the many subsequent treaties compel signatory states to repeat the importance of "teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms."48 At the time of the adoption of the UDHR, the General Assembly called on states to ensure that the Declaration was "disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories." It was assumed and promulgated as a "Universal" Declaration of Human Rights.

Andreopoulos argues that the framers of the UDHR recognized that education is not value-neutral. As we argued above, human rights educators agree that HRE must be seen as a deliberate mechanism aimed at shifting certain local values and behaviors by aligning them with the universal standards set out in the UDHR.49 These shifts in culture necessitate the modification or even replacement of one set of values with another. While the modification or replacement objective and the process of contextualization are not expressly stated, they are nevertheless implied in the UN World Programme for Human Rights Education documents.50 They state that HRE encompasses three elements: (a) acquiring knowledge and skills about human rights in order to apply them in practice; (b) developing the values, attitudes, and behavior that reinforce human rights; and (c) taking action to defend and promote human rights.51 The underlying goal of HRE in the international documents is thus to promote a universal culture of human rights. The challenge we have been addressing in this essay is how to define and implement successful strategies adapted to the learners in question. [End Page 205]

Amnesty International, for example, defines HRE as "deliberate and participatory" and promotes the value of HRE as an empowering mechanism for both individuals and communities.52 This empowerment is created through the transfer of information, skills, and attitudes consistent with the universally recognized human rights principles. The deliberate nature of HRE is further expanded in Amnesty's definition of HRE, which goes on to state that over time, HRE aims to "develop and integrate people's cognitive, affective and attitudinal dimensions, including critical thinking, in relation to human rights. Its goal is to build a culture of respect for and action in the defense and promotion of human rights for all."53 Once again, HRE is seen as a deliberate attempt to displace values, attitudes, and behaviors when they conflict with the universal human rights principles. This challenging process highlights the critical questions that must be asked at all levels about the goals and limitations of HRE, as well as of the potential challenges consequent to its universalizing mission, in the knowledge that it can result in replacing elements of local cultures to conform with a single universal human rights culture. HRE Program administrators, designers, and instructors must wrestle consciously with these challenges.


The approach to HRE adopted by Bajaj is rooted in one or more of the following "three [goal-defined] categories: (1) HRE for Global Citizenship; (2) HRE for Coexistence; or (3) HRE for Transformative Action."54

HRE for global citizenship "seeks to provide learners with membership to an international community through fostering knowledge," values, and attitudes related to the universal standards of human rights.55 This approach to HRE seeks to cultivate a strong sense of global citizenship and calls on learners to counter injustice wherever it may take place.

HRE for coexistence generally seeks to mitigate the ethnic or other tensions that lead to human rights abuse. This second model focuses on interpersonal and the inter-group aspects of rights, as well as minority rights. Values and skills are chosen to promote mutual understanding, respect for differences, and effective dialogue.56 Educational content may also include activities such as participating in camps and other activities to bring about greater understanding. Also included are transitional justice initiatives to promote coexistence, often labeled as peace education. [End Page 206]

HRE for transformative action, the third model, reflects a more politically radical approach based on a historical, economic, and social analysis that examines the past and current living conditions of learners.57 This approach is a call to action and often begins by looking at the gap between current wider realities and the human rights conditions of learners. It is strongly rooted in concepts of agency and solidarity; in this model, learners are urged to foster a goal of transformation, as well as to develop a critique of their own social realities and a determination to act upon the critique. This model is also designed to foster collaboration amongst groups who may not be directly affected by violence such as in highly patriarchal and traditional societies.

In 2002, HRE scholar Felisa Tibbitts identified a similar approach that she referred to as the "HRE for Transformation Model."58 In her original definition, this model was mostly concerned with transformative and emancipatory learning designed to encourage learners to reflect critically on their social realities and to become agents of action in the face of injustice. She notes that this process can be transformative for those who have internalized oppression. Combining emancipatory and transformative learning can enable the learners to become effective change agents. Her theory of change encompasses both personal transformation and action to eliminate human rights violations. Therefore, the result is not only the cultivation of agency but "specifically its application to reforming relationships and structures so that they are more equal, non-discriminating, participatory and consistent with human rights norms."59

In 2017, Tibbitts revised her definition of the transformation model to include the word "activism."60 HRE initiatives that fall under this category are explicitly aimed at encouraging human rights activism and social change. She notes that the rationale behind adding the word "activism" to this model is primarily to place an emphasis on the internalization of human rights values and critical thinking. In this revised model, learners are encouraged to demonstrate new behavior in their personal domain such as by addressing unequal relations in the family, and/or personally participating in campaigns and affiliating themselves with human rights NGOs. Different kinds of HRE programs may fall under this Transformation-Activism model, such as those focusing solely on training human rights workers. Another type of HRE that can fall within this category is education that focuses of the needs of marginalized groups, such as the Bangladeshi women in the case to be discussed below.

These models of HRE are driven by different and specific needs and circumstances. Both Bajaj and Tibbitts start by eliciting an analysis of a social [End Page 207] situation associated with human rights abuses. That analysis helps identify different methods and goals when working with diverse populations. We illustrate this in the following section by taking these authors' definition of HRE and applying it in practice to illustrate how the transformative model of HRE is focused directly on agency and solidarity. Bajaj uses a case study in Zambia where a transformative agency model was integrated into the curriculum and the school structure in the Umutende School in ways that responded to local conditions.61 She notes that unlike in the government schools where uniforms and local languages were prohibited, the Umutende students could wear clothes from their own cultures and greet their teachers in a local language. The students also participated in regular leadership and career development workshops. They were often addressed as future leaders and future presidents of Zambia. For example, when asked where the students see themselves in twenty years, one student notes:

In about 15 years, I will enter government and be a minister or a member of parliament. In 20 years, I aspire to be the president of Zambia. I believe … I'll set foot in the State House of Zambia and bring about oneness and unity in Zambia.62

In contrast, Bajaj's parallel research on students in Government schools found that students saw few opportunities in Zambia and talked about having to go abroad. Umutende is an illustration of how the transformative model can meet the particular needs and aspirations of the target population. This study shows that the Umutende students developed a sense of agency and a vision for their future unlike the students in government schools. Bajaj goes on to argue that certain components could easily be adopted by government schools despite a lack of resources or other constraints. Elements such as emphasis on community service and smaller class sizes would enhance students' ability to transform their surroundings. These HRE processes illustrate the importance of the processes associated with contextualization or vulgarization.63

Tibbitts points out that HRE literature has now gravitated toward political and economic empowerment as an essential feature of successful programming.64 Such empowerment calls for the opportunity to develop practical skills such as organizational ability and leadership. This is considered one form of "instrumental empowerment."65 However, transformative HRE extends beyond instrumental empowerment in two ways. First, transformative education cultivates agency with the explicit aim of social transformation. [End Page 208] Enabling the Zambian students' ability to improve their own social and economic environment is how Bajaj defined the desired student agency. The second way in which transformative education differs from empowerment is that it also fosters personal transformation. This specific methodology is derived from Freire's66 concept of critical pedagogy that enables students to develop critical consciousness. Freire's concept of critical pedagogy encourages learners to examine in depth their social situation, to recognize connections between their individual problems and the social contexts in which they live, and then to take action against oppressive elements.67 Such critical pedagogy is integral to the HRE Transformation Model.68 The two case studies that follow illustrate in greater detail how the transformative model develops ongoing critical social analysis and personal attitudinal change on the part of both the instructors and the target populations.69

A. Case Study: BRAC in Bangladesh

HRE uses values-conflict, activism, and transformation to promote agency and empowerment. These are especially challenging goals when the most marginalized and impoverished populations are the target population. BRAC Bangladesh, a non-profit organization, is one agency that illustrates the concept of agency in the form of social activism. BRAC Bangladesh uses HRE to transform the lives of a particular group, its target population, namely girls living in or close to poverty in Bangladesh. BRAC uses HRE as a means to critique and transform the social and political context of target populations in different parts of the country. This transformative education is based on an understanding of the societal context within which, in this case, girls in Bangladesh live and function. BRAC's needs assessment found that there is a myriad of barriers to girls achieving their right to education, and amongst them the most potent is child marriage. A Human Rights Watch Report indicated that 65 percent of Bangladeshi girls are married before the age of eighteen.70 Another report claimed that a staggering 29 percent of Bangladeshi girls are married before they reach the age of fifteen.71 The government of Bangladesh has failed to take adequate measures to prevent child marriage. In 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to end the marriage of children under the age of fifteen by 2021 and under eighteen by [End Page 209] 2041.72 Subsequently her government proposed only a measure to lower the age of marriage for girls to sixteen if their parents wish to get them married earlier.73 In Bangladesh, about 50 percent of pregnancies occur by the age of eighteen. Early marriage is a critical issue for adolescent girls, not in the least because it raises health concerns. Unfortunately in a traditional and patriarchal society like Bangladesh, this new legislation will probably only increase the rate of child marriage, mainly because it upholds the tradition that allows parents to decide a young girl's fate over her own aspirations and hopes, such as to attend secondary school and college.

To explain why Bangladeshi girls get married at such an early age, in 2015 a Boston-based photojournalist, Alison Joyce, documented the marriage of a fifteen-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Nasoin Akther, to a thirty-two-yearold man.74 This is a common phenomenon in the rural parts of Bangladesh. In her photo series, she highlighted how families view marriage as a sign of respect and protection for women. Even though child marriage is often cited as a result of poverty, in Akther's case, her family was wealthy.75 Joyce noted how Akther's mother also came from a family that internalized the deeply rooted views around marriage and family. BRAC and others seeking to overcome these and other cultural and financial barriers in order to reduce and eliminate child marriage call for more substantial efforts on the part of schools. They need to address, for example, the fact that poor families typically cannot meet the costs associated with textbooks and examination fees, not to mention decent clothes, and that responsibility for domestic chores and other factors often lead young girls to have to drop out of school.

BRAC decided that a long-term solution to prevent child marriage would need to empower and provide the girls with a greater degree of agency. BRAC has thus become one of the few agencies in Bangladesh committed to providing girls with the necessary education and training to transform their current realities. BRAC is dedicated to ending poverty by empowering vulnerable populations, especially women and girls.76 In 2014, the organization pledged to reach 2.7 million girls through its primary, pre-primary, and adolescent scholarship programs.77 BRAC is unique in its approach in that it realizes that getting girls into, and keeping them in, school is not enough. There needs to be additional necessary conditions in place for them to stay [End Page 210] in school. Thus, since its inception, BRAC has provided free education for more than 10 million girls in its primary schools, and then made substantive efforts to support many of the girls through secondary education.78 To date they have introduced such scholarship programs for girl students in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Uganda to support their higher education.79

One of the core concepts of BRAC's program is improving the quality of learning. For BRAC, enrollment numbers do not equate success. By using various human rights education methods of empowerment, they teach students about microfinance, health care, and other tools necessary for them to participate in the workforce. BRAC employs a human-rights-empowerment-based approach to girls' education. Its programs are both voluntary and non-formal and have an explicit aim of promoting social change and human rights activism. They fit both the Bajaj and Tibbitts definitions of the kind of programs that fall under the transformation model.

BRAC's Adolescent Development Program for both inand out-of-school adolescent girls focuses on the provision of life skills (personal and social competencies) and vocational training in the skills necessary for ready employment. Begun in Bangladesh in 1993, it has been actively promoting agency and empowerment through its programming. The Adolescent Development Program is not based in schools but rather its activities take place in the girls' communities where they can also reach girls who have dropped out of school. The program started as "safe spaces" close to home, where girls can discuss with their peers in small groups, away from the family pressure and a male-centered society. These safe spaces are gradually helping to weaken the deep cultural institutions of patriarchy within which so many girls live. The Program's spaces provide a safe place for them to share their concerns without feeling afraid of retaliation from their parents or the community. This illustrates Tibbitts's frameworks of transformative methodologies that explicitly foster personal transformation.

The BRAC Development Program has also created Adolescent Clubs, each of which consists of twenty-five to thirty students between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four.80 The program operates out of normal school hours, and the girls meet with a female mentor. In addition to basic survival skills, the program offers activities such as dancing, singing, and drama clubs. These activities are designed to encourage positive behavioral change amongst the girls.81 This approach to HRE concentrates on the internalization of human rights values and the critical and analytical perspectives outlined above.82 [End Page 211] Thus, in applying the human rights lens to their own lives, the girls develop new behaviors in their personal domain (such as to address unequal relations in the family). The girls who have dropped out of school receive training on income-generating skills, and some become mentors to the younger girls. The clubs thus socially and financially empower the vulnerable adolescent girls.83 For younger girls, the emphasis is on basic financial literacy and their beliefs about money and savings. By their mid-teens, the girls learn to become more empowered by learning financial skills such how to obtain micro credit loans and to start their own businesses.

This form of social empowerment is a key aspect of the transformation model, mainly because it gives girls the confidence they need to develop a critical consciousness regarding their surroundings, their lives, and their future; it makes them aware that they have rights. It also encourages them to take action in the public sphere through efforts to bring about social change, such as by starting an NGO, running for political office, or other community involvement. For example, many women who go through the programs start to mentor other girls and young women with respect to their life experiences. Through training on gender issues, health, and reproductive rights, girls also learn the importance of staying in school and avoiding early marriage and pregnancy.84 Through learning how to earn and save, as well as business planning and budget management, girls in Bangladesh experience intrinsic empowerment that leads them to take action to reduce their culturally-internalized oppression. Micro loans are offered to girls and that is inherently empowering for them because it already helps them to perceive themselves as entrepreneurs, one form of agency. Social empowerment cannot take place without financial empowerment. Without financial empowerment, young girls in Bangladesh do not exercise control over their own lives. Both financial and social empowerment provides girls with agency and capabilities—both of which are an essential component of the transformation process.85

In a society where the lack of job opportunities push girls to get married early and have children, the adolescent program offers the girls an opportunity to discover their personal potential through mentorship, health education, and financial literacy, thus decreasing their dependency on men and their social circumstances. The program is designed to have a ripple effect on younger girls who are facing the same constraints. The BRAC case thus illustrates ways in which HRE can meet the need to create a more supportive economic and political environment. [End Page 212]

B. Case Study: Equal Education in South Africa

South Africa's post-apartheid constitution has one of the most progressive bills of rights in the world. Makau Mutua for instance argues that South Africa "represents the first deliberate and calculated effort in history to craft a human rights state—a polity that is primarily animated by human rights norms."86 At an ideological level, South Africa's Constitution fully embraces universal human rights principles and provides in Section 233 that "every court must prefer any reasonable interpretation of the legislation that is consistent with international law."87

However, there appears to be a divide between the state's adoption of human rights ideology on the one hand and its ability to implement human rights protections on the other. This divide has led to the formation of civil society organizations such as Equal Education (EE) which aims to advance the idea of quality and equality in the South African education system by employing various forms of activism, including protest actions, to advocate for its aims and objectives. Established in 2008, fourteen years after the end of apartheid, EE describes itself as "a movement of learners, post-school youth, parents and community members striving for quality and equality in South African education, through activism and analysis."88

EE therefore represents a human rights organization that reflects Bajaj's89 transformative model and develops the notion of agency as both a tool and a goal. Within the EE context, agency is a tool deployed by its members, referred to as "equalizers," while at the same time, agency in the form of "activism" is a goal of the organization. In a study developed by one of the authors of this article,90 a questionnaire was circulated to twenty-six EE equalizers who had been trained to lead campaigns and facilitate dialogue and discussion among high school students. The training for the equalizers was focused on the use of existing legal mechanisms to gain access to basic rights such as equality, freedom of expression, as well as the right to assembly, demonstration, picket, and petition, all of which are contained in the South African Bill of Rights.91

At the end of the training session, the questionnaire that was distributed to the equalizers (agents) covered two primary areas. The first focused on active citizenship, while the second area looked at differences and similarities between the personal beliefs held by the activists and the constitutional values that they had been taught as part of their HRE training. The questions [End Page 213] focused on agency, namely active citizenship defined as advocacy actions such as attending a community meeting, raising an issue with other people, and participating in a protest. The questions were based on the national Afrobarometer92 survey of political activities and were premised with the following statement: Here is a list of actions that people sometimes take as citizens. For each of these, please tell me whether you, personally, have done any of these things during the past year. If not, would you do this if you had the chance?

Other questions asked participants how often they had contacted a member of parliament, a government official, or political party official about some important problem during the past year in which the questionnaire was completed. The purpose of these questions was to ascertain the level of agency demonstrated by EE agents. One of the primary goals of HRE, such as those articulated in both the Amnesty International and UN World Programme for Human Rights Education definitions of HRE, is the progression from understanding human rights to their implementation through forms of advocacy. The UN World Programme definition of HRE states that "[e]ffective human rights education not only provides knowledge about human rights and the mechanisms that protect them, but also develops the skills needed to promote, defend and apply human rights in daily life."93 Similarly, the Amnesty International definition of HRE refers to "empowering individuals'" to take "action in the defence (sic) and promotion of human rights for all."94

While some of the survey results were unsurprising, some reveal important insights into the nature of agency that EE program participants were engaged in that fit Bajaj's transformative model.95 Out of the group of EE activists surveyed, about 69 percent had attended a community meeting, while 27 percent indicated they would attend a community meeting if they had the chance. Only 4 percent indicated they would never attend a community meeting. The activists were then asked whether they had ever met with a group to raise an issue. About 42 percent indicated they had done so several times, and 31 percent stated they had done so often. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of activists, 83 percent, had attended a demonstration or protest march. When EE survey participants were asked whether they had ever contacted an official in a government agency to raise a concern, 50 percent of respondents indicated that they had never done so. About 27 percent had only contacted a government official once, while 12 percent had done so a few times and 4 percent had done so often. When [End Page 214] these participants were asked whether they had ever contacted a member of parliament about an important problem, 69 percent indicated that they had never done so. About 12 percent stated they had contacted a member of parliament only once, while 8 percent revealed that they had done so a few times.96

What is revealing about this study is that respondents from EE appear more likely to participate in a protest march (83 percent) than to contact a government official (43 percent) or a member of parliament (20 percent). The kind of agency employed to access a human right such as education may point to an ideological approach among EE activists that seeks to engage the state through non-state mechanisms such as protest and community activism, rather than through parliament or elected representatives. In other words, the type of agency used by EE—whether it is intentional or not—appears to center political empowerment and advocacy, while simultaneously encouraging this empowerment process to take place outside formal political structures. This case illustrates how the assessment of a delivery point, namely the human rights training, in terms of its definition of agency, reveals how the three dimensions, universality, ideology, and agency are contextualized de facto. Universality is assured by continued reference to the South African Bill of Rights. Ideology and agency are incorporated in both the content of the training and the participants' perception of political advocacy.


Human rights, and therefore also human rights education, lay claim to a high degree of normative universality. However, in the case of human rights education, it is always limited by the sheer quantity of the potential subject matter and the challenge to make it relevant to the needs and aspirations of a given target population. We have argued that HRE is not a stand-alone enterprise. Among the other factors at work are de facto local economic opportunities, as well as the impact of local multiple political and cultural forces. As illustrated in the two case studies, successful human rights education depends on specific designs and implementation that package the educational inputs needed for transformative education. This calls for HRE that effects acceptable and sustainable social change and agency in a given community or target population. Such economic and political empowerment, especially of minority and disenfranchised groups, will often also be a very sensitive political issue in the eyes of local and national government officials. In order for transformative methodology to work, it needs to transform the target populations in such a way that they are able to change the conditions [End Page 215] under which they live and function. Thus, in the case of the young girls in Bangladesh who fall prey to child marriage, corruption, and gender inequality, as well as in other marginalized populations, the central goal is to enable them to acquire a voice and the capabilities necessary to begin to realize their agency potential. In our opinion, based on the writings cited above and as illustrated by the two case studies, this and other forms of sustained empowerment become the core goals of human rights education and thus the major criteria for evaluating its effectiveness.

Any form of education depends on its delivery points. These are especially critical for HRE. No matter how fine the idea, the intentions, and the administrative superstructure, it is the instructors, teachers, and trainers who have to "deliver the product." This essay has identified the various unique and important characteristics of human rights education. It is thus our strong contention, and that of many of the authors and practitioners cited in the essay, that HRE requires specially trained teachers in order to be able to cultivate the type of critical and normative thinking needed to develop a society-wide human rights culture inside and outside the classroom. These skills include contextualization—adapting general principles to unique local circumstances, enhancing the learners' capacity to analyze their social condition, and transforming appropriately and effectively both their surroundings and their own ways of thinking and acting. This thinking and acting therefore call for instructors who are able to analyze and help their learners analyze the economic, political, and social forces at work in their respective target populations. It is not simply handing on a knowledge of human rights norms and human rights institutions. As the case studies illustrate, HRE for agency calls for a sophisticated understanding of, and commensurate social action from, multiple potential strategies. In other words, the future of HRE depends substantially on the training and performance of the individual teachers, instructors, and trainers on the frontline. Their treatment of our three perspectives—universality, ideology, and agency—and the conflicts among them and with other social priorities provide a useful set of evaluative criteria. They also have to deal with the watchful eyes of many governments who see human rights as subversive. However, throughout our research, two issues stood out: the needs for (a) more systematic teacher training in HRE and (b) more research describing, evaluating, and comparing existing HRE programs.

A. Kayum Ahmed

A. Kayum Ahmed is the Division Director for Access & Accountability at the Public Health Program (PHP) in New York where he leads PHP's global work on access to medicines and innovation. He also teaches a class on socioeconomic rights as an adjunct faculty member at Columbia Law School. Kayum holds a Ph.D. in international and comparative education from Columbia University, various degrees in law from the University of Oxford (MS.t), Leiden University (LL.M.), and the University of Cape Town (LL.B.), as well as degrees in anthropology (M.A.) and theology (B.A. Hons.).

J. Paul Martin

J. Paul Martin teaches human rights at Barnard College, Columbia University. He cofounded the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University in 1978 with Prof. Louis Henkin, creating many of its different degree and other programs, notably the Human Rights Advocates Program in 1989. He specializes on human rights with respect to education, Africa, and world religions.

Sameera Uddin

Sameera Uddin is a Senior Manager for Community Engagement & Partnerships at NYC Kids RISE. In her role, Sameera oversees the development and execution of parent and school networks for the Save for College Program in School District 30 in Queens with the goal of providing access to college savings accounts for every NYC public school student.

Sameera holds a B.A. in Political Science from Marymount Manhattan College, and an M.A. in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University.


1. U.N. OHCHR, United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995–2004),

2. U.N. OHCHR, World Programme for Human Rights Education (2005-ongoing),

4. Used in the sense of identifying and examining premises, notably, in the case of this essay, those associated with ideology, universality, and agency.

5. A. Kayum Ahmed, Bridging the "Values Gap": Human Rights Education, Ideology, and the Global-Local Nexus, in Critical Human Rights, Citizenship, and Democracy Education: Entanglements and Regenerations 173 (Michalinos Zemblyas & André Keet eds., 2018).

6. Human Rights Education for the Twenty First Century (George J. Andreopoulos & Richard Pierre Claude eds., 1995) [hereinafter Andreopoulos].

7. Human Rights Education: Theory, Research, Praxis (Monisha Bajaj ed., 2015).

8. Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted 25 June 1993, U.N. GAOR, World Conf. on Hum. Rts., 48th Sess., 22d plen. mtg., U.N. Doc. A/CONF.157/23 (1993), reprinted in 32 I.L.M. 1661 (1993).

9. Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development, and Peace, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, U.N. GAOR, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.177/20 (1995).

10. Andreopoulos, supra note 6, at 194.

11. Id. at 202.

12. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed 80 (Myra Bergman Ramos trans., 2018)

13. Andreopoulos, supra note 6, at 73.

14. Id. at 95.

15. Id. at 124

16. Id. at 119.

17. Id. at 153.

18. Id. at 162, 246.

19. Id. at 176ff.

20. Id. at 467.

21. Id. Chs. 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23.

22. Id. at 481.

23. Human Rights Education, supra note 7, at 143, 257, 321.

24. Id. at 35–36.

25. Id. at 254.

26. Id. at 34.

27. Freire, supra note 12, at 80–84.

28. Tracey Holland & J. Paul Martin, Human Rights Education and Peace Building: A Comparative Study 56 (2014).

29. Human Rights Education, supra note 7, at 307.

30. Id. at 46ff., 136, 261, 281.

31. Id. at 282.

32. Holland & Martin, supra note 28, at 57.

33. This is in interesting contrast with the US situation in 1791 and that of the Commune in Paris in 1789 when they both defined their own respective bills of rights without the immediate help of external agents. Both did, however, draw heavily on Western history and thought, picking and choosing as they thought best.

34. World Program for Human Rights Education Plan of Action for the Third Phase (2015–2019), in World Programme for Human Rights Education, supra note 2.

35. Milton Rokeach, A Theory of Organization and Change Within Value-Attitude Systems, 24 J. Soc. Issues 13 (1968).

36. Shalom H. Schwartz & Wolfgang Bilsky, Toward a Theory of the Universal Content and Structure of Values: Extensions and Cross-Cultural Replications, 58 J. of Personality & Soc. Psychol. Rev. 878 (1990).

37. Shalom H. Schwartz & Lilach Sagiv, Identifying Culture-Specifics in the Content and Structure of Values, 26 J. Cross-Cultural Psychol. 92 (1995).

38. Id. at 93.

39. Meg J. Rohan, A Rose by Any Name? The Values Construct, 4 Personality & Soc. Psychol.Rev. 255 (2000).

40. Harry C. Triandis, Culture and Social Behavior (1994).

41. Peter B. Smith & Shalom H. Schwartz, Values, in Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology Volume 3: Social Behavior and Applications 77 (John W. Berry, Marshall H. Segall & Cigdem Kagitçibasi eds., 1997).

42. Redefining Culture: Perspectives Across the Disciplines xvi (John R. Baldwin et. al., eds., 2006).

43. Kathryn M. Anderson-Levitt, Complicating the Concept of Culture, 48 Comparative Ed. 441, 444 (2012).

44. Id. at 444.

45. Id. at 443.

46. Id. at 444.

47. Ahmed, supra note 5, at 174.

48. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 10 Dec. 1948, G.A. Res. 217A (III), U.N. GAOR, 3d Sess, U.N. Doc. A/RES/3/217A (1948).

49. Andreopoulos, supra note 6.

50. World Programme for Human Rights Education, supra note 2.

51. Id.

52. Human Rights Education, Amnesty International,

53. Id.

54. Monisha Bajaj, Human Rights Education: Ideology, Location, and Approaches, 33 Hum. Rts. Q. 481, 489 (2011).

55. Id. at 489.

56. Id. at 492.

57. Id. at 493.

58. Felisa Tibbitts, Understanding What We Do: Emerging Models for Human Rights Education, 48 Int'l Rev. Educ. 159 (2002).

59. Id.

60. Felisa Tibbitts, Evolution of Human Rights Education Models, in Human Rights Education, supra note 7, at 69–95.

61. Monisha Bajaj, "I Have Big Things Planned for My Future": The Limits and Possibilities of Transformative Agency in Zambian Schools, 39 Compare 551 (2009).

62. Id. at 558.

63. Id.

64. Tibbitts, supra note 60, at 76–77.

65. Heidi A. Ross, Payal P. Shah, & Lei Wang, Situating Empowerment for Millennial Schoolgirls in Gujarat, India and Shaanxi, China, 23 Feminist Formations 23 (2011).

66. Freire, supra note 12.

67. Tibbitts, supra note 60, at 77.

68. Garth Meintjes, Human Rights Education as Empowerment: Reflections on Pedagogy, in Andreopoulos, supra note 6, at 64–79.

69. Id.

70. Marry Before Your House is Swept Away: Child Marriage in Bangladesh, in Human Rights Watch, World Report 2016: Events of 2015 109 (2016),

71. Bangladesh: Girls Damaged by Child Marriage, Human Rights Watch (9 June 2015),

72. Human Rights Watch, supra note 70, at 110.

73. Id.

74. Nick Kirkpatrick, The "Saddest Bride I Have Ever Seen": Child Marriage is as Popular as Ever in Bangladesh, Wash. Post (28 Aug. 2015),

75. Id.

76. BRAC Commits to Massive Scale-Up in Girls' Education, BRAC (23 Sept. 2014),

77. Id.

78. Id.

79. Id.

80. Shahriar Sadat, personal communication on file with author, 13 Aug. 2016.

81. Bandiera et al., Empowering Adolescent Girls: Evidence from a Randomized Control Trial in Uganda 7 (2012),

82. Tibbitts, supra note 60, at 29–31.

83. Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents, BRAC (1 Dec. 2014),

84. Id.

85. Bajaj 2009, supra note 61.

86. Makau Mutua, Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique 126 (2004).

87. S. Afr. Const. ch. 14, § 233.

88. Our Movement, Equal Education,

89. Bajaj, Human Rights Education: Ideology, Location, and Approaches, supra note 54.

90. Ahmed, supra note 5, at 180.

91. Id.

93. World Programme for Human Rights Education, supra note 2.

94. Who We Are: Human Rights Education, Amnesty International: Middle East and North Africa Regional Office,

95. Bajaj, Human Rights Education: Ideology, Location, and Approaches, supra note 54.

96. Ahmed, supra note 5.

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