x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Gender equality in education is not only a human right, it’s a necessity

Governments everywhere must understand that everyone gains when girls are educated, writes Irena Bokova.

It has always surprised me how some people consider International Women’s Day – celebrated on March 8 – as a day dedicated to women, as if the remaining 364 days were for men.

On the contrary, this day is an opportunity for all men and women to raise awareness about our most important and untapped resource. Gender equality is not only a human right – it is also a development multiplier and one of the most powerful transformational forces we have to build peace and social inclusion.

Educating girls is the key to unleashing this energy. But today girls are still more likely to miss out on primary education: 31 million of them are currently out of school without any hope of ever making it into a classroom. And even if they did, they might not benefit from a quality education. More than 100 million young women living in lower-income countries are unable to read a single sentence – even if they have been to school. As a consequence, women still represent two-thirds of illiterate adults in the world.

This is a vicious circle and a waste of talent and human ingenuity that society cannot afford. No society can develop sustainably using just 50 per cent of its human capital.

Parents generally do not keep their girls away from school willingly. Wherever I have travelled, I have seen nothing but an incredible desire for access to school and learning. Even in the poorest and most marginalised areas, even in times of crisis and conflict, families are ready to make great sacrifices to send their kids to school, even when the classroom is the shade of a tree and the pen is a stick to write with in the dust.

What they want is a quality education. They want qualified teachers and a secure environment where their children will not be harmed, harassed or raped. They ask for safe transportation when the school is far away. Their needs go well beyond the construction of buildings. The provision of quality education calls for new laws, new curricula, new teacher training and, ultimately, a new mobilisation of government at the highest level. We must respond to these demands.

One key to success is to focus on girls’ secondary education. Recently, a lot of political attention has been dedicated to young children, and this is positive. But adolescence is a critical and sensitive time for girls, who face the greatest risk of dropping out. It is a turning point when girls also learn vital skills to get jobs and become active citizens. Keeping girls in school and ensuring they get the education they need and want is the goal of Unesco’s Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education. Launched in 2011, the second phase of this ambitious undertaking will be presented in the UAE this week at the Global Education and Skills Forum.

Success is possible when will is combined with resources and the right policies. Rapid progress towards gender parity in secondary education is possible. New technologies have opened new opportunities to reach the marginalised and train teachers. Many countries have expressed a new commitment to focus on girls’ education, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, where we have just launched the Malala Fund for Girls Education, to decrease gender disparity in schools from 10 per cent to 5 per cent before 2016.

At the same time, we need to recognise that in far too many parts of the world, education is still considered to be a low priority and girls’ education even lower. Governments everywhere must understand that everyone gains when girls are educated. There are few more dramatic illustrations of the power of girls’ education than falling child mortality rates. Since 1990, improved education for girls has saved an estimated 2.1 million lives of children under five. Educated mothers ensure their children are vaccinated. Educated girls become women who are better equipped to make life choices – for themselves and their families. Educated women engage fully in their societies. It is not only right for them, it is right for all of us, everyday of the year.

Irina Bokova is the director-general of the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture (Unesco)