Last week, the global community marked World Day of Social Justice (WDSJ). First proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly during its sixty-second session in November 2007, WDSJ has been observed annually in countries around the world since 2009. The observance of WDSJ not only offers an opportunity to raise awareness about social injustices, it provides an occasion to strengthen global solidarity and promote efforts to effectively address longstanding issues, such as poverty, exclusion, employment, gender inequality, and access to social wellbeing and justice for all. The following paragraphs briefly explore the concept of social justice, note its general importance, and discuss it within the context of Eritrea.
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.
Social justice is regarded as important and worthwhile for several reasons. Not only can it raise people’s sense of happiness and life satisfaction, it can help societies function better and plays a positive role in reducing poverty and inequalities. Furthermore, social justice promotes more inclusive, sustainable socio-economic development and supports the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. There are also indications that social justice can contribute to reducing social tensions or conflict, as it can raise trust and confidence in public institutions or communities.
Today, the issue of social justice remains one of high relevance. The impact of COVID-19, in combination with geopolitical turmoil and armed conflicts, economic crisis, environmental issues, and natural disasters, has pushed social progress backwards throughout much of the globe, while poverty and inequalities within and between countries are on the rise in many parts of the world. (Earlier this year, an Oxfam report revealed that extreme wealth and extreme poverty have increased simultaneously for the first time in 25 years.)
In Eritrea, social justice constitutes a central guiding concept and anchor for nation-building and development. Along with seeking national independence, the protracted armed struggle was fought in order to bring about social transformation and actualize many of the central pillars of social justice, such as equality and rights. After independence, Eritrea’s National Charter, adopted in February 1994 and which outlines its long-term vision, set out social justice as one of the country’s core goals, defining it as: “equitable distribution of wealth, services, and opportunities, with special attention to be paid to the most disadvantaged sections of society.”
Over the years, Eritrea 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 the country’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.
One especially powerful reflection of social justice in action comes from the education sector. To begin, education 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 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 rehabilitate prisoners, and transport assistance (such as bicycles or donkeys for disabled youth).
Additionally, selected schools in different parts of the country provide free 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.
Adult literacy programs and the mother language policy also embody social justice. Over the years, the adult literacy and outreach program 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 in 2021, 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.
Meanwhile, Eritrea’s mother language policy, which was developed and is implemented by the Ministry of Education, mandates multilingual education based on the mother language from pre-primary until the end of 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.
Another leading example of Eritrea’s commitment to social justice is health. The country’s national health policy aims to maximize the health and well-being of Eritreans at all ages and seeks to ensure equity and access to essential health services at a nominal cost, utilizing primary health care as a key strategy and consistent with universal health coverage principles. Health service is heavily subsidized by the government. Patients are required to make only nominal payments (which are further reduced or wholly waived in cases of financial need), and many health services are provided free of charge (including all public and preventive services, such as immunization and growth monitoring, pre- and post-partum care, nutrition and supplementation, health education, etc.). All patients with selected chronic diseases and other disorders, such as tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, hypertension, diabetes, and mental disorders, among others, are provided with free care and prescribed medications.
What is more, keeping with the country’s steadfast commitment to inclusion and the goal of tackling long-standing regional disparities in accessibility and opportunities, the government has directed a considerable amount of investment and effort on constructing, renovating, and furnishing many health and education facilities, as well as expanding roads networks, in remote, hard-to-reach areas that were historically marginalized and neglected.
Alongside the above, Eritrea’s firm commitment to social justice can be seen in its broad approach to development, which is anchored on giving priority to historically deprived regions and segments of the population, as well as parts of the national response to COVID-19, which saw local communities and the global diaspora come together to extend considerable financial and material support to needy individuals and households. Furthermore, a range of other national initiatives and programs have social justice at their core, including those focused on poverty eradication, land ownership and reform, families of martyrs, gender equality, children, the disabled, and various traditionally marginalized or vulnerable groups.
Ultimately, while there is much left to do and still a long way to go, a renewed and strengthened commitment to social justice will help positively transform lives and promote progress toward a fairer, more just nation.