02.01.2010 - Director-General

Priority to gender equality: what will it take? - 'International Institute for Educational Planning', France

Article by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, published on the Newsletter of the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), of January-April 2010

The 1995 Beijing Conference energized women from around the world. The event produced one of the most far-reaching platforms for advancing women’s rights and placed their empowerment at the core of the global development agenda. It spurred new approaches to policy making through a gender lens. I recall this Conference as a defining moment: it gave women courage and inspiration, and symbolized a universal commitment to women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms the world over.

Nearly fifteen years later, however, the battle for gender equality is far from being won. Clearly, there have been impressive advances: the participation of girls and women has increased at all levels of education, with large strides in some of the world’s poorest countries. Gender equality laws have been widely adopted. But of the world’s one billion poorest people, three fifths are women and girls. In sub-Saharan Africa young women above fifteen years old are at least three times more likely to be infected by HIV than men at the same age. Women are more vulnerable to the life-threatening effects of climate change. The global financial and economic crisis runs a strong risk of increasing the vulnerability of girls and women through job losses and reduced access to health and education.

We cannot let this happen: women’s rights are human rights that must be promoted, upheld and enforced. Empowering girls and women is also the most powerful channel for reaching the internationally agreed development goals. Study after study demonstrates the positive impact of girls’ education on child and maternal health, fertility rates, poverty reduction and economic growth. Educated mothers are more likely to send their children to school. Women who participate in literacy courses can more confidently make decisions and have a say in their households and in their communities.

Despite this evidence, being born a girl is still cause for discrimination in large parts of the world, notably across the Arab States, sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. More than half of the world’s out-of-school children are girls. Early marriage and domestic chores take girls out of school before they even complete the primary cycle. Two-thirds of adult illiterates are women, carrying negative consequences for their children’s well-being. Gender interacts with poverty, minority status, language and other markers of disadvantage to severely curtail opportunities. And even though women are making breakthroughs in higher education in all regions, they still only account for 14 percent of researchers. Everywhere women remain under-represented at all levels of the political system. In short, in no society are women and men on equal terms.

For all these reasons UNESCO has made gender equality one of its two global priorities from 2008 to 2013. The aim is to ensure that all our programmes contribute fully to empowering women. From policy dialogue to capacity development, gender equality issues will be mainstreamed in all our initiatives and programmes.

Disaggregated data have helped us gain a much sharper understanding of inequalities. But when it comes to education, gender equality goes well beyond ensuring that equal numbers of girls and boys attend school. It is about changing attitudes, relationships and the sharing of power. Discriminatory traditions are deeply entrenched but they are not cast in stone. By ensuring that girls enjoy equal access to safe schools and making the classroom a place where stereotypes are challenged and not reinforced, education can start to lay the foundations of a more equitable society.

Our focus must be on carefully targeted policies that counter disadvantage in the family, in schools and more widely in society. UNESCO will place a special focus on four areas deemed critical for reaching Education for All: teachers, literacy, skills and planning. In acting on the global teacher shortage, we will assist Member States to integrate gender-sensitive teaching and learning approaches in training programmes. More than half-way through the United Nations Literacy Decade, we will tirelessly campaign to empower women through relevant, good quality literacy programs. Technical and vocational education and training policies will be scrutinized to ensure that girls and boys have equal access to adequate skills and employment opportunities. We will strengthen national capacities to design gender-responsive rights-based education sector plans. We will expand strategic partnerships and alliances to make gender equality a priority in all societies.

As first woman elected to the post of Director-General, I am deeply committed to advance the rights of girls and women through education everywhere. Our Organization will initiate and champion positive change for all women – change that protects their rights and inherent dignity. The world will be more peaceful and just as a result, the aspiration to which we committed in Beijing fifteen years ago.


Irina Bokova
Director General of UNESCO


(c) IIEP Newsletter "Achieving gender equality" Vol. XXVIII, No. 1 January-April 2010

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