The news from the Central African Republic (CAR) is rarely good. The country has been involved in an on-and-off war for at least 20 years. It has been rated as having the lowest human development in the world. It is also the globe's second poorest and its unhappiest nation.
On paper, children in the CAR have the right to access and pursue an education. The government has signed the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which enshrines the right to education. But the statistics show this right is not enacted: although research is lacking, it is clear that many children are out of school and that the quality, especially of public education, is so poor even those who finish primary school may not have learned basic literacy.
There is clearly a discrepancy between children's right to education according to international law and their lack of education in practice in the CAR. This could be explained by the fact that international law may be different to other laws, from other legal orders, which all create laws over the same social space in the CAR. For instance, NGOs, religious leaders, village chiefs and parents may enact their own version of what they view as "right" or "legal".
I discovered in a recently published study that children in the CAR generally do not take any of these social orders as authoritative when it comes to their education. Teachers are generally the only authority figure they seem to hold in some regard.
In fact, the CAR's children are mostly autonomous. They do not feel that anyone makes any law over them. They argue that it is their own choice to go to school - or not. Even if they are told to go to school, or are physically punished for not doing so, they feel they can choose not to. But they may also be the ones who insist on attending school, including collecting money for their own school fees, against their families' wishes.
My findings suggest that the most effective way to provide children in the CAR with access to education is to aim interventions at them directly. Rather than trying to convince parents, religious leaders and village chiefs that school is important, it may be valuable work with the kids themselves and empower them to be able to access education. Children may also be directly involved in creating better quality education. Another option might be to more actively involve the teachers, who are viewed by the children as legitimate authorities.
No rule of law
My key question was: "What laws, from what legal orders, have an influence on the child's right to education in the CAR?"
I researched the existing literature and conducted field research. I held qualitative interviews with 149 participants, among them 46 children. This data was supplemented by recorded observations and a questionnaire.
The findings should be understood in the broader context of daily life in the CAR: overall, it seems that there's little law. This is not just true for international and national law, but for any potential legal order. Neither the government nor local leaders seem to hold authority in a way that goes beyond the role of giving advice. People do not seem to feel obliged to follow the law.
On a local level, conflict resolution is traditionally the domain of the village chief. However, it seems that this has never been much of a legal arrangement. Rather, the chief has been sought out for his or her wisdom, to end conflict by giving advice to opposite parties on how to reconcile. He is a mediator with no legal authority, as scholar Didier Bigo has written:
This image was confirmed by participants to the study. While children in the CAR face a lot of violence from all kinds of authority figures - ranging from parents and school teachers to police forces and soldiers - they are mostly autonomous. They do not feel that anyone makes any law over them.
It is unclear whether this is a new development in the CAR, or whether this has always been inherent in the country's social organisation. According to a priest I interviewed, over the past 20 years "the mentality of people in the CAR has changed". He said:
A way forward?
The only exception here is the classroom. Most children did view the teacher as a legislator. Teachers make rules over children, and children were able to mention rules that the teachers imposed on them, including punishments if transgressed.
Because of this relationship between teachers and students, working with teachers may be a good way to approach the "education for peace" goal set by the UN.
Some issues will need to be addressed. Violence, abuse and corruption - the selling of grades for money or sexual favours - are all too common in the CAR's schools.
But the existing authority in the teacher-student relationship could be harnessed more positively. CAR classrooms have the potential to be a space for children where they can learn a different way of living together.
On a more general level, anyone who is looking to strengthen the rule of law in the CAR might conclude that law is perhaps not the most useful instrument through which to intervene. Instead, strengthening the education system might be the most effective way to build a CAR society in which the rule of law plays a significant role.
Author: Marieke Hopman - Assistant Professor, Maastricht University