International Women’s Day: Interview with Irina Bokova, the first woman Director-General of UNESCO
Today, 8 March 2010, is your first International Women’s Day as Director-General of UNESCO. What are your thoughts on this occasion?
Well, of course I feel a sense of achievement and I hope that my accession to this high office gives confidence to women everywhere. It is a signal that women can have access to leading positions, that they can make a full contribution to society and take part in running world affairs.
I am very aware of the symbolic importance of my election to this post. It places a great responsibility on my shoulders. In doing my best to fulfil my duties, I will also be doing my best to meet these special expectations, in particular my commitment to promote gender equality around the world.
Women have come a long way in the quest for gender equality in the workplace, but they still have barriers to overcome, notably the ‘glass ceiling’ …
Yes, and we have to intensify efforts to change that fact. All women live challenging and demanding lives and all face obstacles. However, we should be proud that we can and do often break new ground – and each time we do so, we have to realise that this creates new opportunities not only for ourselves but for the next generation of women who come after us.
Many women are pioneers in one way or another - whether it is as the first in a particular job, the first in their country or region, the first in their family - or indeed, all three – countless women have broken new ground. However, as we celebrate women’s achievements, we should also spare a thought for the over 500 million women in the world who are excluded from all forms of formal education. This is an unacceptable situation.
The education of women and girls is a particular concern of yours …
As you know, gender equality is one of UNESCO’s two global priorities, along with Africa. The Organization is committed to the realization of everyone’s right to education without discrimination or exclusion. This is why I have invited UNESCO’s partners to make equal rights and equal opportunities for girls and women a top priority. It is the condition of a more secure, just and peaceful world. When equity is at the centre of policies, education can break the cycle of marginalization of women and offer them hope in the future. And indeed there has been progress in recent years. The gender gap in primary education is narrowing in many countries.
But so much remains to be done. Girls still face a distinctive set of barriers to education, from early marriage which prevents them from progressing beyond primary school to lack of inclusive curricula which take gender into consideration, and even gender-based violence. Teachers’ attitudes can be influenced by gender stereotypes, as can the textbooks used in class. And, of course girls are still more likely than boys to be deprived of an education. Globally, around 54 per cent of out-of-school children are girls.
You recently joined other UN agency heads to promote the rights of adolescent girls…
Yes, I signed the UN Joint Statement Accelerating Efforts to Advance the Rights of Adolescent Girls, along with the heads of UNFPA, UNICEF, UNIFEM, ILO and WHO. It is part of a joint commitment to promote gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women. The statement expresses a common vision to prioritize adolescent girls in development strategies and to pledge increased support in developing countries to advance policies and programmes that empower the hardest-to-reach adolescent girls, particularly those aged 10 to 14 years old.
Finally, what is your message for International Women’s Day?
I invite both men and women to acknowledge and celebrate this particular day, gender equality represents an opportunity for all of us!
IIEP newsletter on Achieving Gender Equality (English only)