27 September 2011

Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) expresses its deep concern to the systematic chain of violations that have been directed towards students after the pro-democracy uprising of February 14, where students were arrested, tortured and suspended http://bahrainrights.hopto.org/en/node/4466. Violations did not stop there, as secondary school graduates have been discriminated against in the distribution of scholarships with new criteria for distribution based on the students' backgrounds and personal views.

Introduction Once again the government of Bahrain has politicized education, leading a public sectarian campaign to discriminate against students from a specific racial and religious background which it has made synonymous to the opposition, by failing to give scholarships to academically excelling students with GPAs ranging from 95-99% or giving them mere grants although in past years grants were only given to those with GPAs less than 95%. These actions are in violation of a number of Human Rights Conventions which stress on the right of education to all, no matter what their background or personal views. The government has deprived students of their rights as citizens to receive acknowledgement for years of hard work and dedication, making it one of the few governments in the world which distribute scholarships based on loyalty to the regime instead of academic excellence.

Ministry of Education's new method of distribution
New Mechanism The Ministry of Education has used a new method for distribution of scholarships this year. Instead of basing it fully on academic merit, it has taken a different route by forming a Scholarship Distribution Committee which supposedly focuses on the student’s personal opinions, capabilities and preferences with a personal interview which accounts for 40% and the remaining 60% to their academic achievement. Students had to log in to the Ministry of Education's website in order to register for a scholarship, where they had to choose 12 choices of majors they were interested in which was a number too big to cover their interests thus forcing them to choose majors far away from their aspirations in order to finish off their registration.
Many students have complained of the unjust mechanism of this new method where those of whom have been working for years to maintain a high GPA and were involved in extra-curricular activities as well as volunteer work, did not receive scholarships despite their academic achievements of GPAs ranging from 95% to 99%, which in past years would have gained them a scholarship. While some students with lower GPAs received scholarships due to their pledged loyalty to the government, these students received a mere grant of BD 400 per year which is barely enough to cover the costs of their higher education. Such is the case of Mohammed Jasim, a student who achieved a GPA of 96.8%, aspiring to receive a scholarship in Medicine or Engineering. In the interview he was asked about the relationship of the people with the leadership in order to determine whether he would receive a scholarship or not depending on his loyalty to the leadership. Another example is the case of Mahmood Samir, who had graduated with an excellent GPA of 98.6% hoping to receive a scholarship in Medicine, but was let down with a mere grant that barely covers 5% of tuition fees.
We have also received a number of complaints regarding top students who received scholarships which were not consistent with their desired field of interest in order to indirectly force them to refuse the scholarship or settle for a lower alternative[1]. Fadhel Ebrahim, a student who had graduated with an excellent GPA of 97.5% with hopes of receiving a scholarship in Medicine was shocked to find that he only received one in his 11th choice of study, one very far away from his aspirations.

Interview procedure Although the Ministry mentioned that the new mechanism of distributing scholarships will not prevent academically excelling students from receiving them but instead to help students determine which is the major best suited for them, questions asked in the interviews have proved otherwise. Instead of being asked about the reason they chose their desired major, their motivations toward it or their future aspirations, students were asked questions that were politically motivated, dwelling on nationalism and loyalty to the government. They were asked what Bahrain meant them, how they planned to represent Bahrain internationally if they were given scholarships abroad and the meaning of nationalism to them, none of which are questions that have to do with their education[2]. One student, who was aspiring to study medicine, was asked about her opinion regarding the trials of doctors and nurses who took part in the pro-democracy movement. She was also asked if she watched BBC/Al Aalam/Al Jazeera or Bahrain TV, a question that would help them determine her political stance on the uprising in Bahrain. Another student was asked if any members of his family were political detainees. When he denied, he was told that they were aware his brother was a detainee which implies that it was mentioned in his student file, deeming the question politically motivated and irrelevant to the interview.
Duaa Ayad, a student with a GPA of 96%, described the interview process to us, where students had to store their personal belongings in a separate room, each given about 10 minutes to be interviewed by a council of 3 male interviewers. She was asked to speak about herself but when she started mentioning her GPA and desired field of interest, she was told to keep the scholarship aside and speak about examples of events that have affected her and what she had accomplished in life. As she answered, she was interrupted and asked what she benefited from in her three years at Saar School. Duaa explained that she had just transferred to the school from Ahd Al Zaher school, which was a school that was continuously attacked by government forces after the February 14 events. Once she replied, they quickly asked in an interrogation manner if it was before or after the political events. Not knowing what she got herself into, Duaa immediately replied that it was before the events, keeping to herself that it was due to her family moving to another area because of current events. She was then asked how she would represent Bahrain if she was given a scholarship to the UK, which was a strange question to ask knowing that the Ministry had not issued scholarships to the UK this year. She replied in all sincerity saying that it was natural for a person to speak about his country in a good manner and aim to raise its image abroad by mentioning all its good aspects. They kept on trying to provoke her by telling her to speak openly, as though expecting her to involve politics in her answers in order for them to discredit her. Duaa left the interview room with optimism of receiving a scholarship in Medicine which was her first choice of study, only to be shocked to find out that she received a mere grant despite her hard work and dedication throughout the years.

Lack of Transparency In addition to the new mechanism for distribution, the Ministry of Education has further failed to maintain transparency by publishing results of the scholarship distributions in local newspapers as has been the custom for years. Instead they published the results discretely on their website, where each student had to log in with their CPR number and a given password in order to find out their result. This discretion in terms of failing to announce the results publicly conceals the government's political aims of discriminating against students of a specific background.
Although the Minister of Education had promised not to deprive students of their rights with the new mechanism, cases that have been reported prove otherwise. An example is a case mentioned in Al Wasat newspaper, where 5 students with GPAs ranging from 95- 97% have not received scholarships but mere grants even though their desired subject of interest was available in the Ministry's published list of available scholarships. They also added that some of their classmates with GPAs less than 95% have received scholarships in the fields they were interested in, which proves to show that the Ministry picked and chose who to grant scholarships based on their background and personal views instead of their academic achievement. Many of the students who have not received proper scholarships were not only academically excelling but also involved in volunteer work and extracurricular activities, as well as having achievements that the Ministry has long been proud of and applauded in numerous celebrations[3].

Unfair Distribution BCHR has received 28 cases of discrimination in terms of scholarship distributions where students either did not receive scholarships in their first choices of interest or only received grants despite having excellent GPA's. Zainab Isa is a student who achieved a GPA of 99.3%, ranking her fifth nationwide in terms of academic merit. Even though she had a high GPA with excellent academic achievement, she did not receive a scholarship in her first choice of study which was Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) branch in Bahrain, a college she had already applied and got accepted to. Instead she received a scholarship in her tenth choice which was Banking and Finance at the Bahrain Polytechnic. Due to high tuition fees in RCSI, Zainab is now forced to pursue a path of study she has no interest in and abandon her childhood dream of becoming a doctor[4].

A student who got 99.3% got her 10th preference
Zainab wasn’t the only student who got a scholarship not inline with her desired field of study. Ghadeer, who achieved a GPA of 95.6%, ranking 6th nationwide in terms of academic merit in the Literary field, received a scholarship for Russian Language in Russia when her first option was French Language in France. Although the first three to rank nationwide receive open scholarships leaving the remaining scholarships to those ranking lower, Ghadeer did not receive her first option although the two students above her did. She was also shocked to find out that her first option was granted to a student in Al Riffa School with a GPA of 91%.
Fatima Ebrahim, a student who achieved a GPA of 96.3%, with her first choice being Medicine, applied to RCSI Medical University of Bahrain and was accepted with hopes of receiving a scholarship due to the high tuition fees which she could not cover. She was shocked to receive her 9th choice of study. Likewise was the fate of Mahmood Ebrahim, with a GPA of 96.9%, who received a scholarship in Electrical Engineering which was not even one of his twelve choices. Another student, Fatima Sharaf, who graduated with a GPA of 97.8%, received a scholarship in one of her last choices of interest despite her many academic achievements. Fatima Abdulrasool is one other student who achieved a GPA of 98.5%, only to receive a scholarship in Nursing when her first few choices were Medicine. Also, Abrar Maki is a student who achieved a GPA of 96.8% but only received a scholarship in her 8th choice of study although those with GPAs lower than hers received one in her desired first choices of study.
Not only were students deprived of getting scholarships in their first or second choices of interest but some were also deprived from getting one altogether, given mere grants of BD 400 per year, keeping into consideration that in past years grants were only given to those with GPAs less than 95%. More than 15 cases were reported to BCHR of students who only received grants despite their academic excellence.
Not only were students subjected to discrimination but also to mistreatment during the registration process. One student was shocked to be met with insult and humiliation when he went to file for his scholarship application. Just like all the other students he went to apply with high hopes of getting a reward for years of hard work. He received a paper with requirements for registration, requiring a recent medical certificate, forensic examination to check if his judicial file is clean, and getting his fingerprint taken. Discrimination began when he went to the main office to get his fingerprint taken. As he waited for his turn, a man working there asked to see his papers then asked the boy where he is from. The boy replied with his area, then the man turned to his friend and said “This guy is from the northern governorate, should I let him get him get fingerprinted or make him leave?” His friend replied, “In the occasion of Ramadan let him, although him and his likes don’t deserve it!” The boy was shocked by this talk, staying silent due to fear. He sat waiting for his turn to get fingerprinted, and was then approached by an older police officer who didn’t look Bahraini. The man told the others “Leave this guy to me.” When it was time to get fingerprinted, he told the boy “Clean your hands properly, I don’t want to touch your dirty hands!” Then he again the boy was asked which area he is from. When he replied, the man exclaimed “Yuck! Disgusting. All of you live in these dirty areas. One should live in prestigious areas like Riffa and Manama!” The boy stayed silent but the man continued, trying to provoke him by asking, “You’re one of those who went to Pearl Roundabout aren’t you?” The boy yet again remained silent which irritated the man, who continued, “I don’t know if you’re deaf or don’t know how to speak, but I’m sure you went to the roundabout and slept with those girls! You liked the situation there which is why you can’t reply to me!” The boy couldn’t stand it anymore. He stood up and asked the man if he had any more questions. When he was met with more insults he decided to leave, putting the scholarship behind with his dignity in mind.

Violations of International Law We must mention that Bahrain is a member of the United Nations, which preaches equality to all in terms of civil rights and freedom as well as education. In Article 26 (B) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it states that "Everyone has the right to education. Higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit."[5] Bahrain's recent unfair distribution of scholarships is in violation of this Article, where scholarships were distributed on the basis of loyalty to the government instead of academic merit.
We must also mention that Bahrain is a signatory of the International Convention on the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, which states that, "No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice" Also stating that, "All States shall take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, economic, political, social and cultural life." Bahrain is again in violation of this Convention, where it has systematically discriminated against a group of people due to them being a part of the opposition[6].

As reported by the Ministry of Education, there were 2,426 scholarships and grants available to high school graduates this year[7], which could have been enough for all academically excelling students if only they were distributed on the basis of competency. The Ministry's new method of scholarship distribution and discretion in announcing the results was aimed at concealing their political aims of discrimination. This weakens the credibility of the Ministry of Education, violating students' rights of receiving what they worked hard for throughout the years as well as violating their dignity. In past years, students with GPAs 95% and above would receive scholarships in their first or second choice of interest instead of what they faced this year, being given their 9th or 11th choice of study or being deprived of getting a scholarship altogether only to receive a mere grant which barely covers costs of tuition.
Depriving excellent students from receiving the higher education they worked hard for is not only a violation of their rights but also a deprivation to the country's future. These students hold the key to building a better Bahrain through receiving the education they deserve. Granting them proper scholarships is the least the country could do to award their academic excellence through years of hard work and to open the path for them to bring their dreams to life. It is unjust that these students are discriminated against based on their personal opinions and background.

Based on the above, BCHR calls for the following:

  • Reevaluate and redistribute scholarships, granting them to those 95% and above in their first choices of study as has been the custom for years
  • Cancel the Ministry's new method of distribution of scholarships, where 40% accounts to a personal interview and 60% to academic achievement. This includes dissolving the Scholarship distribution committee, which practiced sectarian discrimination.
  • Official apology to all students who suffered from the unfair scholarship distribution and mistreatment in the registration process, as well as providing compensation for any moral and material loss.
  • Commit to International Human Rights conventions and organizations that state everyone should have the right to education with no discriminations.
  • Lowering the number of choices in the scholarship application, where twelve is too big of a number to cover all of the applicant's interests. This makes the applicant choose majors which he has no interest in, in order to complete the process of application.
  • Hold those accountable from the Ministry of Education responsible for their discriminative actions.
  • [1] http://bhmirror.hopto.org/article.php?id=1470&cid=74 [2] http://www.alwasatnews.com/3225/news/read/571265/1.html [3] http://www.alwasatnews.com/3242/news/read/574006/1.html [4] http://www.alwasatnews.com/3242/news/read/574006/1.html [5] http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ [6] http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/36/a36r055.htm [7] http://www.alwasatnews.com/3209/news/read/567384/1.html