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Panel on Girls’ Education

Statement by Thoraya A. Obaid
Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund
At the Panel on Girls’ Education: An essential Component
Of Sustainable African Development

United Nations, New York
1 June 2001


I would like first to thank Carol Bellamy for inviting me to participate in this panel on a most critical subject for national development- that is the education of girls. This particular subject is very close to my heart and to my life because I lived through the social struggle of education for girls in my home country, Saudi Arabia in the 1950s. I am a product of that social struggle. I also come into UNFPA after Dr. Nafis Sadik, whom I am sure many of you know. Dr. Sadik is a leader in the fight for women’s empowerment; and she has been saying for as long as I can remember that empowerment starts with education.

My background: girls’ education and cultural values

As I said girls’ education is a subject that is close to my heart and part of my own history. It would be surprising to many of you who have lived all your lives in developed countries to know that when I was ready to go to primary school in 1951, girls’ education had not been established in the country. In fact, I went to madrassa or Koranic school at the age of three because my parents wanted me to learn to read and write, like my brothers. Both were visionaries in their own way because they correctly believed that as good Muslims they were obligated to educate their children – both boys and girls. They invoked a most central principle in Islam – that is knowledge, which is the basis for faith. It is this basic religious obligation that provided the guidance for my parents to educate me as they have educated my brothers and created the enabling environment for me to go to school and look where I am now. I am highlighting this background because I could have been like the many disadvantaged girls all over the world who have been denied their basic right to knowledge. Today and everyday we are reminded of the plight of girls in Afghanistan, where they are denied their right to education invoking the very same Islam that was the moving force in my life. Having been privileged to be educated, with scholarships from my government until I completed my doctorate, I was able to makes choices in my life- choices to study, to choose my husband, to determine the number and spacing between my children, to choose to work and to have a professional life. It is the cultural values and religious beliefs that have been invoked to ensure my right to education, basically to ensure my right to social, economic and cultural development. What I am trying to say is that I come from the same culture as that of girls whose right to education has been denied. What made the difference is how we understand and interpret religious and cultural values, so that they would support an enabling environment that ensures the right of girls to education, and that provides the basis for a quality of life of women where their rights are preserved - a life in which women do not have to die because they are the ones who bring a new life into the world.

Gender gap and illiteracy

I say this with the full knowledge that there has been good progress in many ways, especially in terms of reducing the rate of global illiteracy. But some countries, notably the least developed countries, have made little headway since the 1960. Between 1990 and 1995, for example, the gender gap in adult literacy actually widened.

Why have we failed:

  • One reason is that the school age population in the 1990s was the largest in the history of the world and was growing faster than ever before. Countries with the fastest population growth are also the poorest. They have the fewest additional resources for education.
  • In many of these countries the burden of debt and structural adjustment has pushed education and health care down the development agenda. So, poverty, of nations and people, is holding back education.
  • One more additional reason is that some policy makers, political leaders, and even parents still do not see the overriding need for educating girls. It is seen as an optional extra- an aim to be pursued when other more urgent needs are satisfied.
  • But a very important reason that is often partially expressed or even unspoken is the fear of the power that girls – the future women – will have through education. There is still some resistance to the idea that girls and women can be trusted with education.
  • Education is also seen in some societies as a fear of change and now with globalization, the fear becomes even greater- fear to lose the cultural identity, fear of moving towards the unknown or the unwanted, fear of dissolving in the many others.

Education and changing world

But this type of thinking misses the real point of education. It is through education that we can deal with the changing world, that we can work together to ensure that globalization brings positive changes to the most disadvantaged in the world, as stated in the Millennium Summit Declaration. Educating all girls and all women, to the fullest extent they are capable, will give societies the direction to deal with change and will give flexibility to our cultures to adapt to change without loosing our identities.

ICPD Programme of Action and girls’ education

The ICPD Programme of Action adopted in Cairo in 1994 clearly recognizes the pivotal role of education in empowering women and ensuring that they can attain a quality of life that recognizes their humanity and provides the basis for the enjoyment of their rights. The Programme of Action clearly states that the reduction of fertility, morbidity and mortality rates and the empowerment of women are largely assisted by progress in education. Therefore, mainly through its advocacy efforts, UNFPA has contributed to the international efforts, in support of our sister agencies, namely UNICEF and UNESCO, to keep education of women and girls high on international and national agendas. The global initiative on girls’ education launched by the Secretary-General at the Dakar Forum this year aims at promoting gender discrimination and gender disparity in education systems. This basically means eliminating discriminatory attitudes and practices against women and girl child and improving the access of the girl child, from UNFPA point of reference, to health, nutrition education and life opportunities.

Education and adolescent’s fertility rate

One of the key development indicators that UNFPA is monitoring is adolescent’s fertility rate in countries. This indicator is highly correlated with high levels of school drop-outs, high unemployment rates and low levels of access to basic social services, including reproductive health services- factors contributing to the high rates to STDs, including HIV/AIDS. Adolescent Fertility Rate is especially high in countries where poverty prevails and where serious gender disparities further compromise the situation of adolescent girls.

Education and quality of life of girls

Education is important for everyone, but it is especially significant for girls. Girls who have been educated are likely to marry later, for example, to have smaller and healthier families. Educated women can recognize the importance of health care and know how to seek it for themselves and their children. Education helps girls and women to know their rights and to gain confidence to claim them.

Education and HIV/AIDS

As we are approaching the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS, it is important to emphasize that a most important element in the prevention of the disease is education. Arming young people, especially women who are five times more vulnerable than men to HIV/AIDS, with the information and knowledge about the disease is a first step towards prevention. This knowledge will empower them to protect themselves through a spectrum of ways. With this knowledge, they can make decisions regarding prevention abstinence, delaying age of sexual relations, behavioral changes in the sexual relations, and the use of condoms. It is knowledge, the content of education, that would allow them to save their lives.

Education and married adolescents

There is a special challenge to deal with the educational needs of displaced and refugee girls and also married adolescent girls, whose needs are adversely affected by serious lack of access to health and education opportunities. Marriage before the age of 18 is another powerful disincentive to education. It is also a threat to their reproductive health. Early marriage often means early pregnancy, which is highly risky for both mother and child; adolescent girls are physically, mentally and emotionally unprepared for childbirth.

Education and societal benefits

The broad social benefits of girls’ education are well known to all of us- increased family incomes, later marriages, reduced fertility rates, reduced infant and maternal mortality rates, better nourished and healthier children and families, greater opportunities and life choices for more women, including better chances to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS.

Investment in education, ICPD financial goals

Because of these multiple benefits, which are synergistic, it is widely recognized that devoting resources to quality education for girls is among the best investments that any society can make.

One of the keys to success is simply resources. ICPD set out a minimum goal for expenditure on reproductive health and related issues. So far we are nowhere near fulfilling the agreed goals. Keeping the promise of Cairo must be the first item on the international agenda.