United around Girls’ Secondary Education
Backed by powerful testimonies from Bangladesh and Sierra Leone, UNESCO’s Director-General and UNFPA’s Executive Director made a strong plea for investing in adolescent girls during a round table on “Advancing Girls’ Secondary Education,” organized by UNESCO and the International Federation of University Women at the United Nations in New York on 28 February 2011.
In her keynote address, Irina Bokova noted that girls’ secondary schooling carries a cascade of lifetime benefits but remains a “weak link in the learning cycle of girls.”
“Our responsibility is to create a virtuous circle of opportunity,” encompassing financial incentive programs, making learning environments safe and supportive, and providing girls with skills that empower them on the labour market.
Doctor Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, stated that amongst today’s 1.8 billion young people, girls are the most disadvantaged and exposed to violence. Good quality secondary education, he said, “empowers young women to hold down jobs, discriminate between different choices and have self esteem.”
“Destinies can change within a generation when there is political will at the highest level,” said Ms Bokova, citing the case of Bangladesh. Dr Abdulkalam Abdul Momem, ambassador of Bangladesh to the United Nations, outlined initiatives in his country that had led to gender parity at the secondary level: stipends to families conditional on girls staying in school and remaining unmarried; free tuition for girls; recruitment and training of female teachers, free books to Grade 12 and setting up schools in remote areas.
Ya Marie Jah, a student advocate from Sierra Leone, gave a first-hand account of obstacles to pursuing a secondary education, ranging from poverty and gender discrimination to teenage pregnancy and female genital mutilation. “There was a time that I was out of school because my family could not afford to send me,” said Ms Jah, who is now in her final year of secondary school and a member of a youth economic empowerment project launched by Plan.