Girls' and Women’s Education: The Way Forward

©UNESCO/Dou Matar

The event was held on the occasion of the 36th session of UNESCO's General Conference on Thursday, 27 October 2011, and the following participants took the floor:


Ms Irina Bokova, Director General

Her Excellency Ms Vigdis Finnbogadóttir, Former President of Iceland and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador 

Mr Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, Director of the Barefoot College

Ms Jan Eastman, Deputy General Secretary of Education International  

Mr Gregory Elphinston, Director of Corporate Social Investment of Nokia Finland

Mr Steven Reissig, Director of Strategic Professional Development at GEMS Education

Ms Sheila MacVicar, Moderator


Irina Bokova opened the side event by pointing to the fact that women and girls are changing the world with their aspirations for a better life in their communities. However in times of crisis or conflict these women and girls are often the hardest hit. UNESCO is supporting these women and girls in their efforts, and this goal to promote gender equality and women’s rights inspired the launch of UNESCO’s Global Partnership for girls’ and women’s education in May 2011. The launch of this Global Partnerhsip showed that the will that exists to make a difference. Today it is important to mobilise forces to move further. Gender equality is both a basic human right and a multiplier for development but the world is not on track to meet the goals set for Education for All. Women’s literacy and girls’ secondary education are the weak links. UNESCO wants to intensify the efforts of the international community to get concrete results. There is a need for greater cooperation between states and more partnerships and collaboration with private organisations.

The Director General concluded that without investment in education there will not even be the start of a solution to global problems such as poverty and conflict. The engagement and ideas of all are required.


H E Ms Vigdis Finnbogadottir gave the keynote speech in which she reiterated that girls’ and women’s education is of paramount importance for humanity. Girls and women need to be literate to be able to contribute to finding solutions to major global problems such as climate change and environmental damage. Learning to read, she said is the greatest gift that any child can receive and a gift which will determine their future. The capacity to read makes young women grow in confidence and capacities. And women who are themselves literate can teach their children to read, thus multiplying the effect.


Bunker Roy gave a very practical example of the impacts of education on women, showing how his Barefoot College has trained three hundred African grandmothers to become solar engineers and electrify over one thousand villages across the continent. He argued that he had found men to be untrainable as they are inherently mobile and will migrate to the city as soon as they receive a certificate in order to look for a job there. So Barefoot College has chosen to train grandmothers who will return to their villages and use the knowledge they have gained. This education relies on exploiting women’s traditional skills and knowledge. Although the education they receive does have a knock on effect of inspiring these women also to learn how to read. This example shows the importance of using people’s existing skills and of not writing off the world’s illiterate populations.


Jan Eastman of Education International stressed that there is a global momentum building in favour of girls’ and women’s education, but warned that despite this momentum, the international community is still failing to meet set goals and targets. Targets alone do not work, there must be increased efforts to address basic issues of gender equality including educating teachers themselves on gender sensitive education.


Gregory Elphinston of Nokia spoke about the ways in which mobile networks can help in advancing education by widening access. There is no longer the absolute need to bring children to the classroom, rather children can be provided with education in their own environment. This is particularly important for girls and women who may face important barriers to physically accessing schools, and thus can benefit from this mobile education. With changes in regulation of mobile phone networks, the cost of accessing this information could fall drastically. Mr Elphinston concluded on a positive note in stressing that literacy for all is an achievable goal.


Stephen Reissig of the GEMS Foundation outlined important initiatives being undertaken by the Foundation, which include:

  • A partnership with UNESCO for gender sensitive training of school principals and women teachers of maths, science and technology in  Kenya and Lesotho
  • A project in collaboration with UNESCO to train ten thousand school principals in Kenya, Ghana and India. This project will work with Ministries of Education in the concerned countries to build principal capabilities.

In the ensuing debate, the audience raised questions relating to the importance of using new technologies to overcome issues of translation and language differences, and of the need to improve literacy at the same time as exploiting other existing skills through education. The need to involve boys and men in supporting gender equality in education was also highlighted. Finally it was stressed that it is important to provide positive role models to change mind-sets and to make gender equality a reality in society. The Side Event provided an important discussion of the ways UNESCO and its partners can advance in promoting gender equality in education and move towards international targets on Education for All. 


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