Remarks by Michelle Bachelet at the first anniversary of UNESCO’s Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education

Date: 25 May 2012

Remarks by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at the first anniversary of UNESCO's Global Partnership for Girls' and Women's Education Paris, 25 May 2012.

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I am happy to be part of the first anniversary of UNESCO's Global Partnership for Girls' and Women's Education. I congratulate UNESCO on the first anniversary of this initiative, which addresses two key areas that require increased attention - secondary education and adult literacy. It is more urgent than ever to address inequalities in education.

Inequalities exacerbated by the financial and economic crisis undermined education opportunities for poor girls and boys, particularly from minority groups and rural areas. This can lead to a downward spiral of deprivation that can persist through generations, with adverse long-term consequences for sustainable development, poverty reduction and public health.

We appreciate UNESCO's efforts to promote gender equality in education. In particular, I would like to congratulate UNESCO for the first World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education, which was launched in March this year.

Education is a basic human right. It is also a key driver of economic growth and social change. It is a basis of women's empowerment. While significant progress has been achieved in women's and girls' equal access to education at all levels, this achievement remains restricted in many parts of the world. We know that girls' access to education can be particularly limited if they live in poverty, in rural areas or in urban slums; belong to a minority group; are affected by armed conflict; or live with disabilities. Early marriage, early pregnancy and child labour can force some girls to drop out of school.

As the World Atlas rightly illustrates, “gender equality in education is much broader than gender parity in education. Gender parity aims at achieving equal participation for girls and boys in education. Gender equality, however, is much broader than this -- it is understood more broadly as the right to gain access and participate in education, as well as to benefit from gender-sensitive and gender-responsive educational environments and to obtain meaningful education outcomes that ensure that education benefits translate into greater participation in social, economic and political development of their societies.[1]

We increasingly witness that once girls do make it into the education system, they tend to persist and perform at higher rates than boys. Access to education, however, is not enough to gain access to decent work and employment. Education must be of good quality and relevant to the demands of the labour market. Currently, too many children leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills.

One element that affects the quality of schooling is gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes can restrain women's and girls' educational choices, which can increase the gender pay-gap and women's over-representation in lower-paying sectors and jobs. While progress has been made in eliminating blatant sexism from textbooks and curricula, efforts are needed to increase the portrayal of both women and men in less stereotyped roles at all levels of education.

While women's employment opportunities increased, although not on par with educational gains, the quality of employment has not improved much. Women may be entering the labour market, but in jobs that do not guarantee their right to decent work, such as full social protection and opportunities for social dialogue. Evidence from 83 countries shows that women earn between 10 and 30 per cent less than men.[2] In addition, women are overrepresented in part-time work. In the European Union, for example, 31.1 per cent of women worked part-time compared to 7.9 per cent of men in 2008.[3]

Young women may find the transition from education to employment more difficult than young men because of limited access to social networks, information channels and job search mechanisms. School-to-work transition initiatives therefore are imperative to ensure that gains in girls' education are translated into decent work opportunities for young women.

We have also seen progress in women's participation in science and technology education. At the tertiary level, women now dominate in some fields of science, particularly life sciences and humanities. However, women generally continue to be underrepresented in computer sciences and engineering. The ‘gender-science stereotype', which associates men with mathematics and science, negatively affects girls' interest in these disciplines, and their self-assessment and performance as students.

Women remain underrepresented in the field of research and development, be it in academia, the public sector or private companies. Women's participation in science and technology has been likened to a ‘leaky pipeline' with continuous attrition of women throughout their professional lives - due to isolation in a male-dominated environment; difficulties in reconciling work and family life; and stereotypical views of women as less competent in these fields. We need policies and programmes to increase the recruitment, retention, promotion and recognition of women in science and technology employment. We also need to sensitize recruiters, provide affordable childcare, mentoring programmes, and affirmative action for access in decision-making positions in research and development institutions.

As a leading advocate on women's and girls' empowerment within the UN system, UN Women works with a range of partners at all levels to contribute to the implementation of commitments on women's and girls' education.

UN Women is excited to be part of the Secretary-General's Global Initiative on Education[4] that aims to raise the profile of education on the global political agenda and mobilize support for the achievement of the internationally agreed goals on education. This Global Initiative, which will be launched by the Secretary-General during the sixty-seventh session of the General Assembly, will focus on: 1) Putting every child in school; 2) Improving the quality of education; and 3) Fostering global citizenship.

Innovative partnerships can overcome constraints women and girls face in accessing education and training. UN-Women's partnership with the Barefoot College of India helped train 25 African women, mainly illiterate grandmothers, from Liberia, South Sudan, United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda as “solar engineers in the installation and maintenance of solar panels and its systems to electrify their own homes and villages.

As we celebrate the first anniversary of UNESCO's Global Partnership, I look forward to hearing the testimonies from girls and women that benefited from this initiative today.

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[1] UNESCO (2012). World Atlas of gender equality in education. Paris, p. 21

[2] International Labour Organization, Global Wage Report 2008/09: Minimum wages and collective bargaining, Towards policy coherence (Geneva, 2008).

[3] European Commission, “Equality between women and men (Brussels, 2010).

[4] Other partners include UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education.