Yesterday the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva held a panel discussion on realising the equal enjoyment of the right to education by every girl. The panel focused on a broad spectrum of situations and obstacles that girls face when accessing education and the actions and responses of governments. I wanted to share some of the observations with you.
Adama Coulibaly, Regional Director at Plan International for the West African Region, said that barriers to girls’ education in general are multiple: the cost of education, distance to school, violence in and around schools, gender norms, and early marriage and pregnancy. “During emergencies those barriers would become more complex and multiplied, and the situation would become worse for marginalized and excluded populations, particularly girls with disabilities and those belonging to minorities. Education was often interrupted during emergencies, with some children never returning to school, while those who stayed received poor quality of education as a result of unsafe and inadequate learning environments. Dropping out of school was detrimental to girls’ future due to difficulties in catching up on missed lessons, early marriage, and parents preferring to keep girls at home for economic reasons. When children missed out on their education because of emergencies, the negative impact went beyond the interruption of their learning and exposed them to early marriage, child trafficking and gender-based violence. At the same time, disasters could offer opportunity to rebuild more resilient communities and change norms that blocked girls’ education.”
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also addressed the panel. “As education expands girls’ horizons, opens up better earning opportunities, and improves women’s position in the family and society, it brings strong benefits to the entire community,” according to Mr. Zeid, noting that the benefits included “greater social stability, better health outcomes across generations, and a surge of economic growth.”
The High Commissioner explained that, according to the recent UN-backed Statistics on Women study of 174 member states, the best predictor of a country’s so-called “peacefulness” is not its wealth or political structure but the well-being and education of women and girls. This finding, coupled with the considerable progress made towards achieving the third Millennium Development Goal on gender equality marked “a tremendous force for social change.”
At the same time, he warned, almost one-third of countries today continue to lag in achieving gender parity in primary education while less than half see as many girls as boys in lower-secondary grades.
“In several countries, education is far from being a zone of gender-sensitivity and safety; a shocking number of girls face sexual violence and harassment inside schools, and on their way to schools,” added Mr. Zeid. “One-third of girls in developing countries are married before they’re 18, and millions give birth while they are still in their teens; most of these young women are prevented from continuing their education.”
Gender parity in education is also under threat from the growing spread of extremists who seek to extinguish any attempt at changing their obscurantist views. A recent paper issued by Mr. Zeid’s office covering the years spanning 2009 to 2014 reported thousands of attacks against schools in at least 70 different countries, many of which were targeted for advocating girls’ education.
The violence, the High Commissioner said, ultimately stemmed from a fear of the power of girls’ education “to spark and sustain social, cultural, economic and political change.”
“Every state should take urgent measures to ensure that all girls can effectively and safely access education of quality, including teaching about human rights,” concluded Mr. Zeid. “With an education of this nature, in line with human rights standards, future generations will be equipped to build and maintain societies based on equality and justice for all.”