Education Challenges in Myanmar: Trying to Reach Education in a Chaotic Environment

Written by Müge Çınar

Education in Myanmar: the background

The first educational transition occurred in 1948, from the colonial education system to a national system. The second educational transition happened after 1962, from a national education to the so-called ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ education. From 1988 to 2010, the country’s education noticeably deteriorated so that almost 40% of children never attended school, and nearly three-quarters failed to complete even primary education (Lwing, 2007).

In September 2014, the parliament and the military-backed government approved the national education law. However, students protested against the national education law, which is highly centralised and restricts academic freedom. In June 2015, an amendment to the national education law was enacted with minor changes. The teachers, scholars and students had to obey social control. In addition, the government prioritised its political agenda in the education system.

Education Budget and the System in the Country

With education spending 2.91 per cent of the GDP, the lack of an education budget (approximately three times that of the military budget) further hinders growth. As a result, compared to other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, children in Myanmar do significantly worse on standardised tests. The new country has begun reforms, such as the gradual implementation of free education through high school. Despite some progress, there is still a long way to go (Children of the Mekong).

Children in a classroom. Photo by worak. Wikimedia Commons.

Genocide of Rohingya People by Myanmar and its Effect on Children’s Education

The Rohingyas, a Myanmar ethnic group, have been denied fundamental human rights, including citizenship. They have been subjected to terrible oppression, prejudice, violence, torture, unfair prosecution, murder, and great poverty for decades. Rakhine State’s hostile environment has caused the Rohingyas to evacuate their homes and seek asylum in neighbouring nations (Shohel, 2023). This erupted the children’s fundamental right to education while asylum-seeking and travelling with much trauma.

Many villagers have fled the fighting and their burned homes during the decade-long civil conflict. Many villages seek refuge in the bush, and the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) is growing. Hundreds of villagers lost their homes and left their communities during the recent conflict in Kachin State, northern Myanmar (Lwin, 2019). Thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children were shot and burned in a matter of weeks during the violence against the Rohingya community in northern Rakhine State, western Myanmar; masses of Rohingya women and girls were raped; infant children were killed; men and boys were arbitrarily arrested; several hundred villages were destroyed in arson attacks; and more than 700,000 people were forced to flee to neighbouring countries (Washington Post, 2017).

There are around one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, including 300,000 who entered as a result of previous years’ violence (Washington Post, 2017). More than half of the Rohingya refugees are women and girls, with 60% being minors under 18 (Oxfam, 2018). According to the UNHCR (2018), 97,418 Myanmar refugees live in nine refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. 54.4% are under 18 (The Border Consortium (TBC)). This is a question of nearly half of the population how to get proper education in refugee camps. In addition, Malaysia is one of the transit countries for refugees, and Malaysia has thousands of Rohingya refugees that have no legal refugee status by the government.

Over 31,000 refugee children from southeast Myanmar’s conflict-torn Kayah State require immediate financial assistance to continue their education. Despite the continuous violence in Kayah, pupils attend community schools, including makeshift classrooms in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps (The Irrawaddy, 2022).

How Different Are Minorities Getting Education?

Although the name ‘Burma’ is derived from the Bamar people, who constitute two-thirds of the country’s population, according to official government data, Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region, with over 135 ethnic groups. The country’s geographic location has drawn settlers from various backgrounds throughout history. There are over 100 languages spoken, and minority ethnic populations are estimated to make up approximately 40-60% of the total population and occupy half of the land area (Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), 2021).

The Bamar (68%), Chin (2.5%), Kachin (1.5%), Karen (7%), Kayah (1.83%), Mon (2%), Rakhine (4%) and Shan (9%) are the eight ‘official’ groups. The figures are from 2016. The sea gipsies’ of the southern islands, the “long-necked” ladies of Padaung, the Nagas on the Indian boundary, and the tattooed women of Chin State, not to mention the Pa-O, Wa, Kokang, Akha, and Lahu indigenous peoples, are all part of these broad groups. The country’s major religions are Theravada Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism.

Teaching minority languages in state schools has been prohibited in the Burmese education system since 1962, and this policy remains in place today (Lwin, 2017); even though Myanmar has an estimated population of 51 million people who speak over 100 languages and dialects, as stated above.

A teacher and some students including novice Buddhist nuns at Aung Myae OO Monastic Education School on Sagaing Hill across the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay. The ‘civilians’ have decorated their faces with thanaka, a skin protector and, among women and girls, a fashion cosmetic made from tree bark that has been used in Myanmar for at least the past two millennia. Photo by Dan Lundberg on Flickr.

The Hardship of Language in Education, Especially Ethnic Language

The language of education is not neutral since it reflects the historically determined ability of one or more groups to elevate their language to such prominence within a state. A curriculum may also contain classes that educate about local history. In certain circumstances, language is the primary divide behind ethnic conflict and civil war (Shohel, 2023). For example, Bormann, Cederman, and Vogt (2017) demonstrate that linguistic cleavages are increasingly prevalent. A centralised education sector often fails to adequately address the grievances arising from rights to identity and language (Dryden-Peterson & Mulimbi, 2016).

Child Soldiers and Child Labour

A civil war necessitates many soldiers, and both sides of the conflict use children to strengthen their forces. Although it is difficult to determine due to a lack of official estimates, tens of thousands of child soldiers are undoubtedly present in Myanmar (Children of the Mekong). These children, many orphans, are frequently enlisted or sold to armies. They are indoctrinated and pushed to battle after they join the military. Solving this problem will necessitate a reduction in ethnic tensions and enhance political stability, both of which appear unattainable.

According to UNICEF, one out of every four children aged 6 to 15 works. There are two reasons for this: schooling is still costly, and lack of finance for the education sector sometimes means that the children receive insufficient education. As a result, many rural residents prefer to send their children to work to earn money (Children of the Mekong).

Gender inequality

The military authority has been the norm rather than the exception in Myanmar for 50 years. For many decades, women were barred from holding leadership positions and were denied equal economic and educational possibilities as men. During these decades, social conventions decided that women and girls should control the household, family, and other caretaking chores while males should be leaders, owing to the country’s military and hyper-masculinity. This period’s patriarchal worldview is exemplified by the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which regularly refers to women as mothers and proclaims that specific vocations “are suitable only for men.” Myanmar was ranked second most discriminating in the 2021 Social Institutions and Gender Index2 out of nine Southeast Asian countries (UN Women & UNDP, 2022).

According to the women who responded to the survey in December 2021, “After the military takeover, all the hopes and aims are gone, and everything has been difficult. The education system is worsening, and the scarcity of jobs is increasing” Kayin resident, 55 years old (UN Women & UNDP, 2022).

Young children attend a school in Myanmar. Photo by ILO / P.Pichaiwongse on Flickr.

Children with Disabilities

According to the Ministry of Population’s 2019 survey, 12.8% of the population has one of the six disabilities: 6.3% have a visual impairment; 2.4% have a hearing impairment; 5.4% have difficulty walking; 4.4% have difficulty remembering/concentrating; 1.9% have difficulty self-care; and 1.6% have difficulty communicating (DoP, 2020, p. 93).

According to the Ministry of Education, students with disabilities attended 14.72% of all regular primary and secondary schools in 2019. In Myanmar, statistics show that education for disabled children is scarce (Tonegawa, 2022).

DoP et al., 2017: 156 estimate that 45.4% of children with impairments aged 5-9 years and 31.4% of children with disabilities aged 10-13 years have never attended school. The enrolment rate of disabled children is low compared to Myanmar’s overall net enrollment rate in formal education, which is 98.5% in formal primary education and 79.2% in formal lower secondary school. In Myanmar, school enrollment for disabled children is low (Tonegawa, 2022). This multi-sectoral review holds that Myanmar’s success in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is largely dependent.

Unqualified Higher Education Teachers and Teachers under Threat

The University scholars are expected to be positioned at the nexus of teacher training and research practice. The scarcity of research-related scholars is a crucial issue for Myanmar, with their minimal studies on their research engagement.

The teachers also, as well as students, are under threat of ongoing conflict. The 2021 coup and the civil war affected teachers’ safety. In addition, eleven though the teacher is threatened by their lives, their income is insufficient to survive.


The second anniversary of Myanmar’s February 2021 coup d’état has just passed, and the country’s terrible state of armed warfare, insurgency, turmoil, and anarchy has only worsened. With the uncertainty surrounding the postponed general elections this year, which most believe will not be free, fair, or genuine, the civil war inside Myanmar is projected to worsen in 2023. There appears to be no end in sight. All of these conditions deteriorate the access to quality education for many children.

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Educational Challenges in Benin

Written by Faith Galgalo

The country profile

Inauguration monument Dévoués. Photo by Presidency of the Republic of Benin on Flickr.

Located in West Africa, and on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, The Republic of Benin (French: République du Bénin), gained independence in 1960, from the French rule. Benin, is part of the 15 member states that make up Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a Regional Bloc aimed at promoting economic corporation among member states, to raise living standards and promote economic development.

Education System in Benin

Benin education system follows the French education model, which is Six years in primary, four years in Junior High, three years in Senior High and three years in University, which constitutes to the 6-4-3-3 system (UNESCO, 2023). Education in Benin has been free for 17 years. The provision of the constitution under Rights and Duties of the Individual, Article 13, states that primary education shall be obligatory and the government shall progressively offer free education to its schools (Constitution of Benin (COB), 1990).

Problems in Benin Education

Benin strategy to increasing student enrollment by introducing free education at the Primary level, increased the enrollment rate, from a net enrollment rate of 82% in 2005 before free primary education, to 97% in 2018, 12 years after free primary education was introduced (Data World Bank, 2018).

The rapid increase of students at the foundation level of education due to free education, has however, not translated, in the progressive levels of education, of Secondary and University. According to World Bank Data, 54% of Beninese children enrolled in the 1st grade of Primary school eventually reaches the last grade of Primary education. The low number of students progressing to Secondary and University schools has significantly been attributed to child labor, early marriages, early pregnancy and poverty.

The low literacy levels, which currently stands at 46% and is much lower than the rates in the neighboring countries of Nigeria (62%) and Togo (67%) (World Bank, 2021). In 2018, Benin was among the 10 least literate countries in the world (42.36). The high dropout rate to other levels of education, have led to a reduction of national income and overall GDP in the country, as jobs for less qualified people lead to low-income jobs in the future, creating a lower access to innovation and a lower GDP. As individuals with low levels of literacy are more likely to experience poorer employment opportunities, outcomes and lower income as they face welfare dependency and high levels of poverty as a country (World Literacy Foundation, 2018).

Gender Gaps

Teacher Léandre Benon and student Mariam at the blackboard. Photo by GPE/Chantal Rigaud in Flickr.

The high dropout rates are particularly evident to Benin gender gaps, which have seen more girls drop out than boys. In Benin, gaps between women and men stem from structural social disparities that start earlier in life. According to World Bank, (Nathalie, 2022) the male literacy rate between 15-24 years is about 55 percent while the female literacy rate in the same age group is about 30 percent. Only one in ten girls aged 21-24 have completed secondary school. Moreover, one third of 20–24-year-olds are married by the age of 18, and 15 percent are already mothers at the age of 15-19 (Nathalie, 2022).

In addition, the average number of years of schooling in Benin is 3.8 years which is lower than its ECOWAS member countries of 4.2 years in 2019 (UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2022).

Since 2015, Benin has not yet closed the gap. Also, the drop in lower secondary completion rate from 45% in 2015 to 33% and 2020 (UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2022) echoes the need to focus on the pursuit of education and ensure 100% transition from one level of education to the next, in both genders.

These gender gaps have translated to the larger community whereby the gender parity index which measures the steps a country has made towards gender parity in participation and/or educational opportunities for females is low at 0.79% (World Bank, 2022). Young girls in Benin are at risk of not completing education as a result of societal norms automatically decreasing women participation of women in Benin’s formal sector. The Government has increased its efforts in ensuring Girls education is addressed with Benin agreeing to introduce the AU Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa which is part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for Children in Africa (Forwerk, 2017).

Child labor

Children in Benin engage in the worst forms of child labor, including in the production of cotton and crushed granite. Children also perform dangerous tasks in domestic work and street vending. According to International Labor Organization (ILO, 2021), 20% of children under the age of 14yrs, experience child labor.

Children are trafficked mostly within Benin but also to neighboring countries such as Gabon, Nigeria, and the Republic of the Congo, for domestic work and commercial sexual exploitation, and to work in vending, farming, and stone quarrying (ILO, 2021). Children living in the northern regions of Benin are the most vulnerable to trafficking owing to being a rural area. According to the International Labor Organization, a practice locally known as vidomégon (Child placement), where children most girls, are sent to live with other families for domestic work in exchange for educational opportunities, which in most cases, lead to many children becoming victims of labor exploitation and sexual abuse.

In 2013, the Government implemented a nationwide anti-child labor awareness campaign and signed a bi-partite agreement with a Beninese worker association to reduce child labor through increased collaboration (Refworld, 2021). That year, the Government officials handled 62 child trafficking cases and 11 exploitive child labor cases, referred 23 suspects to the court system on child labor and trafficking charges, and provided shelter to 173 victims of trafficking (ILO, 2021). In another effort to end child labor, Benin’s government through its Social Affairs docket, removed 400 children from child labor as a result of Social Services inspection (ILO, 2021).

Lack of official documentation

A 12th grade math class at Collège d’enseignement général of Sô-Ava. Photo by GPE/Chantal Rigaud in Flickr.

The Beninese Government offers free registration to a new born before 10 days, after which, the parent/ guardian incurs a fee of $30 (ILO, 2021). Cultural practices such as naming a baby, takes 10 days after birth, which therefore gives the parents little time to register and obtain a birth certificate. While in other households, 2 in 10 children in Benin, are born at home, giving children little or no hopes in acquiring official documentation (ILO, 2021).

Lack of official documentation in any country, presents a challenge in accessing basic rights such as access to health and education. In Benin, 4 out of 10 children are not registered at birth and do not receive a birth certificate. As a consequence, they are often denied the right to an education and lack access to other essential services, hence leading to an increase in the informal sector and an increase in child labor.

Since January 2012, UNICEF has been involved in the distribution of more than 140,000 birth certificates that were pulled up in civil status registration centers. Through this initiative, children have access to the services they are entitled to such as health and education. According to UNHCR, a National forum on civil registration is aiming to address the hadles that prevent universal access to birth registration in Benin (UNICEF,2012).


Benin is a country with a growing economy, whose efforts such as free primary education, increase of teachers and facilities, have showed a slight increase, there is still the need for the Government to increase its efforts in ensuring 100% transition in all levels of education in both genders, this will increase the literacy rate, and eventually the economic situation to improve the lives of Beninese people.

A few recommendations would be to increase Government spending on the education sector, especially following the Government 5 years plan through its Program Action that began from 2021-2026, which sorts to increase development in various Governments sectors such as; Education challenges, Development challenges, Economic challenges. Also, Government needs to up its efforts in ensuring no child is left behind as a result of lack of identification, child labor and early marriages. The Government and its Education stakeholders need to encourage the communities especially in the rural areas that Education is an asset, and through it, an entire community benefits from new ideas, leaders and increased standards of living. Through this, the literacy rate of Benin, will increase adding to Benin workforce, that mostly depends on Agriculture, can eventually expand to other sectors such as Technology and Professional and business services hence increase Benin’s GDP.


Educational Challenges in Bangladesh: Consequences and Future Trends of Child Labor

Written by By Anna Kordesch

Women working at a garment factory – Image by Maruf Rahman from Pixabay

The World Trade Organization (WTO) reports that Bangladesh holds the position of the world’s second-largest exporter of ready-made garments, contributing to around 6.4% of global garment exports in 2020. However, this economic success comes at a grave cost, as children aged 5-17 are often exploited and illegally employed in the Bangladeshi garment industry. This unethical practice not only deprives them of education but also limits their future opportunities. Without access to basic education, these children are forced into low-paying jobs in factories, lacking the chance to acquire skills that could lead to better-paying employment in the future. As a result, they become trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and low-wage work, perpetuating the cycle of child labor. The absence of quality education deprives these children of their potential and severely diminishes their chances of breaking free from illegal and physically demanding labor.

As conscious consumers, it is imperative that we consider the entire supply chain of the garments we purchase, including the production side, and acknowledge the potential consequences of our buying decisions. We must inquire whether a t-shirt has been ethically produced and whether child labor was involved in any stage of its manufacturing. Reflecting on these questions could contribute to providing hundreds of children in Bangladesh with an opportunity to access quality education and break free from the shackles of poverty.

The purpose of this article is to increase awareness about the issue of unequal educational attainment in Bangladesh, which is exacerbated by the prevalence of child labor and inadequate government policies aimed at eradicating child labor.

Brief history of poverty in Bangladesh

After gaining independence in 1971, Bangladesh faced a significant challenge with 80% of its population living below the poverty line. However, over the years, the government has made poverty alleviation a key priority in its development strategy. As a result, the poverty rate has decreased from 80% to 24.3%, which still means that approximately 35 million people in Bangladesh are living below the poverty line (UNESCO, 2009).

The government’s efforts to tackle poverty have been supported by sustained economic growth, driven in part by sound macroeconomic policies and an increase in exports of readymade garments. As a result, the overall poverty rate has declined from 13.47% in 2016 to 10.44% in 2022 (Dhaka Tribune, 2022).

Despite these achievements, recent trends suggest a slowing down in the rate of poverty reduction in Bangladesh. Moreover, the impact of poverty alleviation measures has been uneven between rural and urban areas, as the country undergoes rapid urbanization. This indicates that while progress has been made in reducing poverty, challenges remain in ensuring equitable poverty reduction across different regions of the country.

Although Bangladesh has experienced rapid economic growth and is considered one of the fastest growing countries, income inequality remains a significant and pressing issue. In fact, income inequality in Bangladesh has reached unprecedented levels not seen since 1972. Despite the growth of the readymade garments export industry, the benefits of this economic sector have not been evenly distributed, leading to a low ranking of 133rd out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index.

One stark indicator of income inequality is the contrasting income shares between the bottom 40% of the population and the richest 10%. The income share of the bottom 40% is merely 21%, while the richest 10% enjoy a significantly higher share of 27%, illustrating a sharp disparity in wealth distribution (World Bank, 2023). These disparities in income distribution highlight the urgent need for addressing income inequality in Bangladesh, as it poses challenges to achieving inclusive and equitable development. Efforts to tackle this issue require a comprehensive approach that considers factors such as economic policies, social welfare programs, and targeted interventions to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are shared more widely among all segments of the population.

Child labor in Bangladesh

The inherent inequality and income disparities within Bangladesh have a clear impact on the educational attainment of children across the country. Child labor is unfortunately prevalent in many parts of Bangladesh, especially in rural areas where poverty rates are high and access to education is limited. Districts such as Chittagong, Rajshahi, and Sylhet have particularly high incidences of child labor, as they are located in the rural outskirts of Bangladesh, highlighting the aforementioned intra-country inequality.

The poverty resulting from this inequality has dire consequences for Bangladeshi children, who are forced to engage in illegal employment to combat poverty. Approximately three out of every five children are employed in the agricultural sector, while 14.7% work in the industrial sector, and the remaining 23.3% work in services (Global People Strategist, 2021). Although the government of Bangladesh ratified the International Labor Organization Convention in early 2022, which clearly stipulates the minimum age for employment in Article 138, children in Bangladesh continue to be subjected to the worst forms of child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor in activities such as drying of fish and brick production.

A troubling aspect is that the Bangladesh Labor Act does not apply to the informal sector, where the majority of child labor in Bangladesh takes place. Reports of violence against child workers in various sectors, including domestic work, have been documented. In 2018, over 400,000 children worked in domestic work in Bangladesh, with girls often being abused by their employers. Additionally, reports indicate that from January to November 2012, 28 children were subjected to torture while working as housemaids (Global People Strategist, 2021).

These children are compelled to join the workforce in both formal and informal sectors out of sheer survival necessity to provide for their families, and are unlikely to return to their studies. A UNICEF report revealed that children under the age of 14 who have dropped out of school for work are laboring an average of 64 hours per week. Putting this number into perspective, European labor laws limit working hours to 48 hours per week, including overtime (UNICEF, 2021).

Visiting Subornogram’s school for the Dalit Cobbler children. Matthew Becker, 2012 Peace Fellow, Subornogram Foundation, Sonargaon, Bangladesh

Current Educational Picture

The issue of educational attainment in Bangladesh exhibits significant inequality, which is attributed to both structural inequalities in the country and weaknesses in the governance of the education sector.

School participation rates also highlight disparities, with 10% of children of official primary school age being out of school. Among primary school-aged children in Bangladesh, the greatest disparity is observed between the poorest and the richest children, which can be linked to the broader inequality between households in the country. This disparity is supported by a 2019 UNICEF report that indicates completion rates for upper secondary school are 50% for the wealthiest children but only 12% for the poorest (UNICEF, 2019).

The Bangladeshi government has attempted to address education inequality at the primary level through a conditional cash transfer program targeted at poor children, which covers 40% of rural students. However, this program leaves a substantial proportion of poor children uncovered, despite their high levels of poverty. This initiative has resulted in a rapid increase in primary school enrollment, with 7.8 million children receiving stipends of $1 each.

Nevertheless, due to biased decision-making that favors the non-poor, the government’s

recurrent spending on education is disproportionately allocated, with 68% of total government spending directed towards the non-poor, despite this group representing only 50% of the primary school-aged population (World Bank, 2018). These statistics highlight that while there may be governmental intentions to improve educational attainment in Bangladesh, the reality presents a different picture, with rural children facing continued disadvantages in terms of national educational governance.


In short, quality education is essential for the eradication of poverty giving children the chance at a better life. Helping children turn away from child labor, requires the emphasis on the reduction on family poverty. Only quality educational attainment will become available for every child regardless of their socio-economic background can the future generation of Bangladesh flourish under the governments aid program. The primary purpose of the government of Bangladesh should be to protect children from the detrimental effect of child labor and ensuring their quality education.

The first solution to mitigate unequal quality educational attainment, is to make governmental policies broader thus ensuring financial inclusion of the marginalized. Adopting appropriate macroeconomic policy which priorities education equality. More transparency in the allocation of educational resources will force the government of Bangladesh to take on a more utilitarian perspective. This new allocation of resources will allow for more interest in soft infrastructure such as the recruitment of adequate number of teachers at schools.

An additional approach to address the issue would be for the government of Bangladesh to effectively promote awareness about the significance of quality education. This awareness campaign should not only target urban areas, but also prioritize rural areas where poverty rates are particularly high.

Furthermore, as a prerequisite to raising awareness, the Bangladeshi government should focus on providing the necessary infrastructure that enables people to access education information. This entails addressing the root causes of poverty in the country to create an environment where children are not forced into labor and can instead avail themselves of educational opportunities and experience a normal childhood.

Ensuring that every child has the opportunity for quality education and a safe upbringing is of utmost importance.


UNESCO. 2009. “Governance and Education Inequality in Bangladesh.” Accessed April 16, 2023.

UNICEF. 2021. “The future of 37 million children in Bangladesh is at risk with their education severely affected by the COVID-10 pandemic.” Accessed April 14, 2023.

UNICEF. n.d. “The Challenge.” Accessed April 2023.

Global People Strategist. 2021. “Facts About Child Labor in Bangladesh.” Accessed April 13 2023.

Hosen, Aoulad, S.M. Mujahidul Islam, and Sogir Khandoker. 2010. “Child Labor and Child Education in Bangladesh: Issues, Consequences and Involvements.” International Business Research Issues 3, no. 2: 1-8.

Dhaka Tribune. 2022. “Report: 35m Bangladeshis still live below poverty line.” Accessed April 13, 2023.

World Bank. 2023. “Poverty & Equity Brief.” Accessed April 10, 2023.

Bureau of International Labor Reports. 2021. “Child Labor and Forced Labor Reports.” Accessed April 10, 2023.

UNICEF. 2019. “Bangladesh Education Fact Sheets 2020.” Accessed April 13, 2023. file:///Users/annakordesch/Downloads/Bangladesh-Education-Fact-Sheets_V7%20(1).pdf.

World Bank. 2018. “National Education Profile.” Accessed April 14, 2023.

Educational Challenges in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Written by Alexandra Drugescu-Radulescu

Smith, W. (2016, January 5). flag of Korea, North. Encyclopedia Britannica

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known as well as North Korea, is one of the most oppressive systems in the world. It is a dictatorship with a bad track record in respecting human rights, access to education included. An important aspect to remember is that the country’s regime stems from the Juche [1]ideology, which has at its center auto sufficiency and lack of communication with the external world. Therefore, the amount of data on the actual actions of the government in DPRK is limited, impacting the quantity of information in this article. The following testimony, of one of the survivors of the regime that imposes child labor, suggestively portrays the everyday fight of North Korean citizens:

“There were also soldiers who worked with us as well. They made us work harder. They could start their work only after we finished our tasks, so they made us hurry. When boys got angry and acted impolitely to the soldiers, they were beat up.” – Koo Dong-Su [2]


North Korean school system has three stages: Elementary and Middle and High School[3]. At least in theory, North Korea has a series of internal documents that should ensure children are protected. One of them is the North Korean Children’s Rights Protection Act (2010), which supposedly prioritizes the well-being and happiness of children. Furthermore, the state`s constitution promotes free education[4].  However, from the reports created by various organizations, one thing is clear: there is a very problematic infringement of human rights on the North Korean people, and the field of education is included. As one would expect, problems in North Korea regarding access to education are vaster and more internalized than in other countries. Problems include severe breaches of human rights, such as child labor.

Treaty accession

Photo by Mathias Reding on Unsplash


As previously stated, North Korea is a dictatorship, in which human rights are not the regime`s priority. Unsurprisingly, because of its policy of self-sufficiency, the state is not a member of various treaties meant to protect citizens. While signing a treaty does not guarantee the respect of the clauses, it portrays the willingness of the people in power to at least account for international norms. A proliferation of treaties concerning children’s rights took place in the 20th century, with documents that highlight the importance of education for the fruitful development of youngsters.

North Korea is heavily criticized for its refusal to sign documents that, at least in the eyes of international law, would prevent the regime from infringing human rights. The regime still insists that resolutions of the UN are just the product of the policy of “hostile” Member States [5](2023 report).

In the Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, under the UN Period Cycle Review, various organizations and international bodies urge North Korea to accede to various legal documents[6]. A relevant request in the context of education rights comes from the Committee on the Rights of the Child. They recommend the State ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Family. Furthermore, UNESCO encourages the state to ratify the Convention against Discrimination in Education and to seek the support of UNESCO in implementing it. The names of these conventions might be overwhelming, but they were stated here to portray how far behind North Korea is situated in the talk of respecting the right to access education. While other states might try to improve their curricula or implement technology in the learning process, North Korea first has to ensure it can provide basic access to education, without discrimination.

Access to education

This photo shows daily life for students in Pyongyang. Photo by (stephan)

The population of North Korea is divided into different social statuses based on their affiliation with the government[7]. This has implications not only for the standard of living of citizens but also for the access to education of children. Children from lower-status families are sometimes forced to pay informal school fees. They live as well in areas that lack educational infrastructure. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has information, although limited, on the situation of children from remote areas[8]. A massive problem is the lack of educational facilities, schools in certain areas not being fully functional, therefore causing drop-out rates. Furthermore, the dire situation of the common North Korean, where basic survival becomes a privilege, puts children in a situation in which they have to work in order to support their families (report 2019).

The Committee on the Rights of the Children urges the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to implement comprehensive measures to develop inclusive education, regardless of social class[9]. However, this recommendation, which promotes educational reform, could be hard to implement in such a closed state, with a regime that refuses any outside help in improving the quality of its educational system. Furthermore, UNESCO recommends the implementation of legislation that prohibits work for minors, in order to ensure children get to develop properly. Unfortunately, the non-binding character of these recommendations makes their chance of success less realistic.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on most countries around the world and the standard of living of the majority of people in North Korea is considered to have become particularly vulnerable during the pandemic, not only because of the disease but also of the strict closing of borders[10]. Food scarcity increased throughout the country. The lack of access to basic resources pushed children to work in order to be able to survive. As explained in the previous section, the problems in North Korea are much deeper than in many other areas of the world, due to the looming threat of starvation. While this has been present for many years, the COVID-19 pandemic and the strong regulations caused by it intensified the ongoing trend of minors being forced by circumstances to do labor.

Students leaving their school. Photo by Matt Paish.

Child labor

As presented above, children throughout North Korea need to work to achieve basic sustenance. However, the problem of child labor is much more institutionalized than one would hope, despite the fact that according to the North Korean constitution child labor is forbidden[11]. Educational institutions mobilize children for seasonal work that is unpaid and mandatory. One of the programs is “Agricultural Labour Support”, in which children go to work on local farms partnered with their schools. The North Korean economy is primarily based on agriculture, with almost no trade, which leads to a strong need for cheap labor. One of the so-called solutions found by the regime is the use of students for agricultural work. Besides the mobilization done by the state, a PSCORE report states schools themselves send independent students to work, in order to be able to finance the school. The North Korean government tries to excuse this blatant display of child labor with the pretense of instilling a work ethic in pupils. Children from rural areas are the ones that usually physically contribute to farm production.

Another widespread form of forced labor is the “Long-term Agricultural Labor Support”[12]. Children do not just perform activities after school, but they have to remain within the perimeter of the farm for a certain amount of time, usually a couple of months during the harvesting season, to contribute to the state`s production. This is implemented regardless of the area of the country the child comes from, meaning that even children that study in cities need to go to a distant farm to perform agricultural labor.

A significant issue of this practice is that it is not only mentally and physically draining, but it can lead to severe injuries. The PSCORE report states that despite the North Korean Constitution, which promises access to free health care, injured children during agricultural work do not receive any medical treatment whatsoever[13].

Furthermore, children receive corporal punishments if they do not comply with their obligations[14]. In theory, North Korea`s Children’s Rights Protection Act of 2010 prohibits the physical punishment of children. Unfortunately, the reality is different. Students get harmed by their own teachers during the labor programs supported by the school. An institution that is supposed to be a safe environment, in which children can grow, becomes in North Korea a place of psychological and physical harm, in which everything is in the name of the regime.

This situation goes against well-established treaties, such as the International Labor Organisation Conventions on Child Labor. Both Convention No.138 on Minimum Age and Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour prohibit the forcing of children to do manual labor[15]. However, North Korea is not a member of the International Labor Organisation or a signatory of its conventions, which makes it impossible to hold the state accountable in the face of international law. Nevertheless, the widespread practice of child labor in the country should be criticized as heavily as possible, given the repercussions on the well-being of youngsters and the impairment of their educational formation.

 The politicization of the school curricula

Even when children can attend classes, despite the obstacles presented above, the undemocratic character of the regime creates issues in terms of the subjects approached in school. An authoritarian state needs to derive its legitimacy from the support of the people, something done through various mechanisms, such as coercion. In North Korea, the cult of personality is a method of creating legitimacy for the regime. This has direct implications for the quality of education. The school curricula become a political instrument, children being taught more about the so-called greatness of their leader, than quality information. All schools demand students to be part of different organizations under the authority of the Youth League[16]. The main aim of the Youth League is to offer ideological education, a process through which children are supposed to be indoctrinated from a young age to become supporters of the regime. Obviously, these organizations are supposed to respect the desires of the party, whose main aim is the mobilization of the population.


Despite the limited information on what happens inside its borders, it is clear that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea violates basic human rights. Amongst them, we can count education, which is probably one of the most forgotten areas in the country. Due to the scarcity of food and water, children are forced to contribute to sustaining the family. Even when children are able to attend school, they are used for free labor and shaped into becoming avid supporters of a regime that prevents them from reaching their full potential. Unfortunately, at the moment the problem of North Korea seems to be an unsolvable one.



  • Human Rights Council Fifty-second session Agenda items 2 and 4 Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention Promoting accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. (2023).
  • Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Thirty-third session Compilation on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights I. Background II. Scope of international obligations and cooperation with international human rights mechanisms and bodies. (2019).
  • Hyo-Kyung, L., Heidi Hee-Kyung, C., & Young-Il, K. (2018). Unending Toil: Child Labor      within North Korea (pp. 1-311, Rep.) (N. Bada, Ed.). Seoul, Republic of Korea: Y People for Successful COrean REunification.
  • International Labour Organization. (2019). ILO Conventions and Recommendations on child labour (IPEC).–en/index.htm
  • Lee, G. (2003). The Political Philosophy of Juche. Time, pp. 105-109.






[5] Human Rights Council Fifty-Second Session Agenda Items 2 and 4 Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General Human Rights Situations That Require the Council’s Attention Promoting Accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

[6] (Human Rights Council Fifty-Second Session Agenda Items 2 and 4 Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General Human Rights Situations That Require the Council’s Attention Promoting Accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea)

[7] (Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Thirty-Third Session Compilation on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights I. Background II. Scope of International Obligations and Cooperation with International Human Rights Mechanisms and Bodies)

[8] (Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Thirty-Third Session Compilation on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights I. Background II. Scope of International Obligations and Cooperation with International Human Rights Mechanisms and Bodies)

[9] (Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Thirty-Third Session Compilation on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights I. Background II. Scope of International Obligations and Cooperation with International Human Rights Mechanisms and Bodies)

[10]  Human Rights Council Fifty-Second Session Agenda Items 2 and 4 Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General Human Rights Situations That Require the Council’s Attention Promoting Accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea