Late last week, Musa Naib, Director General of General Education at the Ministry of Education, delivered a seminar to thousands of students and teachers at the Warsai-Yikealo Secondary School. In addition to discussing the progress achieved and reviewing some of the challenges encountered within the nation’s education sector, the informative seminar also touched upon a number of other interesting topics. One that particularly stood out was the concept of social justice. The following several paragraphs delve a bit deeper into this concept, both to underscore its far-reaching significance and to offer further detail and critical context.
At the same time representing a long-term process and a standalone goal, social justice mainly has to do with the notion of fairness. Basically, it is the view or belief that all people within an institution, community, society, or country should have equal opportunities, be afforded the same rights, and receive the same treatment, regardless of their specific race or ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, age, religion, mental and physical ability, or other particular distinction. A relatively recent concept (unlike justice in the broad sense) and a term that has become increasingly prominent within general discourse, social justice is undergirded by several fundamental principles or pillars. Among others, these include human rights (which involve the fundamental dignity and the inherent value of all persons); equality; diversity; respect; access; and participation.
Education is internationally recognized as a basic human right and it is indispensable for the exercise of other rights. Moreover, it is one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality, and it sets the foundation for sustained socio-economic growth and development. The United Nations explains that “[E]ducation is the key that will allow many other Sustainable Development Goals…to be achieved. When people are able to get a quality education they can break from the cycle of poverty. Education, therefore, helps to reduce inequalities and to reach gender equality.”
However, worldwide there continue to be massive inequalities and disparities in education, both within and between countries. Hundreds of millions of children around the globe are out of school and millions of people of all ages remain illiterate. When social injustice pervades education systems, it serves to dramatically undermine the great potential, overall capacity, and general well-being of a nation’s people, particularly it most precious and valuable resource – its youth and children. Ultimately, all of society is impacted, indeed hurt, when its people, especially children, are unable to get educated.
In Eritrea, social justice constitutes a central guiding concept and anchor for nation-building and development. Since attaining its independence in 1991, the country has crafted a broad spectrum of policies and adopted a variety of legal instruments to help address the specific needs of and catalyze progress for vulnerable groups, such as the poor, women, children, persons living with disabilities, nomadic populations, and those residing in extremely remote or hard-to-reach areas. These vital interventions continue to play a critical role in cultivating peace and unity within Eritrea’s multi-ethnic, multicultural society, aim to mitigate disparities and create a level playing field on which all citizens have a genuine opportunity to excel and seek to ensure that each and every individual is empowered and able to enjoy the fruits of inclusive socio-economic growth and social progress.
Regarding education, in Eritrea, it is regarded as a fundamental right to which all citizens are entitled and it remains a central pillar of society. The country’s national policy provides for equitable access to an education free of charge to all, extending from primary up to and including the tertiary level. (In recent years, spending on education has averaged approximately 14 percent of the national budget. Moving forward, the plan is to increase this to about 22 percent by 2025.) This is complemented by several other programs and measures that aim to promote inclusion and equal opportunities for all citizens, including the provision of subsidized and free learning materials, financial assistance to vulnerable households to keep children enrolled, the establishment of boarding schools for students from remote communities or nomadic groups, literacy, and skills programs for rehabilitee prisoners, and transport assistance (such as bicycles or donkeys for disabled youth).
Additionally, selected schools in different parts of the country provide regular meals to students, an important social protection tool that leads to multiple health and learning benefits. Many boarding schools have been constructed in historically and economically disadvantaged communities, and they operate with public funding at all levels of learning. Notably, continued substantial investment and support for technical and vocational education is helping to promote greater opportunities for decent, productive work, sustainable livelihoods, personal empowerment, and improved incomes, especially for youth, women, and the generally disadvantaged.
Several examples of social justice within the education sector in the country stand out. One is the adult literacy and outreach program, which over the years has promoted literacy and provided learning opportunities for historically marginalized groups and those who may have been missed by the system. After being paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the national adult literacy and outreach program resumed last year, with nearly 800 centers nationwide offering courses. In total, almost 30,000 adults participated in the program, with a large percentage being women. The success and impact of this program is demonstrated by the fact that adult literacy has continued to rise over the years, jumping from 46 percent in 1990 to about 77 percent in 2018.
Another poignant illustration of social justice in action is the mother language policy. Eritrea is a country that is blessed with rich cultural diversity, and it is home to a colorful array of ethnolinguistic groups. This great diversity is central to the country’s national identity and is deeply cherished as one of its greatest assets and strengths. The country’s mother language policy, which was developed and implemented by the Ministry of Education, mandates multilingual education based on the mother language from pre-primary until the end of the elementary level. This is an important tool for protecting human rights, preserving diversity, culture, and tradition, and fostering peace, tolerance, and respect for others. In addition, the policy helps to increase access and ensure inclusive, quality education for all, particularly through reducing dropout rates, improving academic results, fluency, and literacy, and leading to greater family and community involvement.