Women and Girls’ Access to and Participation in Education, Science, Technology and Employment


Speech delivered by Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet during the International Women's Day Celebration held at Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia, Liberia on 8 March 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Your Excellency, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Special Representative of the Secretary General, Ellen Margrethe Løj, Honorable Minister and Legislators, distinguished guests, women, girls, men and boys of Liberia.

First, let me thank you for the opportunity to address the people of Liberia on this special day. It is an honor to celebrate International Women's Day with you in Liberia: a country recognized worldwide as a leader in women's participation and empowerment. A country known for its courage and determination to install peace after over a decade of conflict. A country that made history when you elected the first female president in Africa. Liberia's achievements in empowering women were recognized last year when the Government received a special award for its achievement in promoting gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.

International Women's Day is an opportunity to celebrate the gains made towards gender equality in all countries and the efforts of all — men and women, civil society, governments, and the private sector — who champion the rights of women and girls. As we join today to recognize how far women have come in their struggle for equality, peace and development, it is clear that Liberia has much to celebrate.

Let me extend my congratulations to all the women from the security sector — the Armed Forces of Liberia, the Liberia National Police, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, the National Fire Service, the Special Security Services and the women serving in various battalions of the United Nations Mission in Liberia. As a former Minister of Defense from Chile — and the first female Minister of Defense in the Americas — I am especially pleased to witness the efforts being made to increase women's recruitment and participation in Liberia's security. To the female officers in uniform here today, please know that you stand as a strong example for others to follow, not only here in Liberia, but around the world.

To the businesswomen and all others who are exhibiting their products and goods, I commend you for the hard work, creativity and innovation that make your businesses successful. UN Women strongly believes in the economic potential of women in all sectors. Empowering women economically is one of the key priorities UN Women will work on. Over the past two days, I had the opportunity to learn and meet various women entrepreneurs, farmers, cross border traders and market vendors. I am touched by their resilience, determination and hard work despite their daily challenges.

Last year, the Government of Liberia and UN Women trained those involved in cross border trading on border procedures, regional trade agreements and human rights. By the end of the four-day training, the women agreed to form an advocacy and business association to address the needs of Liberian market women engaged in cross border trade. Now registered as an official entity, the Association of Women in Cross Border Trade represents over 500 members. The Association works closely with Government officials at all levels, and offers credit opportunities for its members. This year, through the support of UN Women, the Association will construct two storage warehouses and extend new business classes to its members.

Investing in the training of these 70 women opened a new door for hundreds of others, empowering them to demand greater protection of their rights and increased economic opportunities for their trade. They now aspire to accomplish much more, not only for themselves, but for the greater protection and increased opportunities of women across West Africa — to expand their businesses, participate in policy-making and governance related to regional trade, and create a safer environment for expanded trade opportunities.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This year's theme for International Women's Day challenges us to think critically about women and girls' access to education, training, science and technology. It emphasizes that this investment is critical to promoting women's equal access to employment and decent work. Gender equality and the empowerment of women can only become a reality if we put the necessary resources into education and training for women and girls.

Research and statistics indicate that while women have joined the labour force in greater numbers in the last decade, they are disproportionately located at the low end of the global economy. Globally, women are still less likely than men to hold regular wage and salaried positions. They continue to be over-represented in occupations with low pay, poor working conditions, little job security and no health or pension benefits. Women still get paid less for doing the same job as men.

Reversing these trends for women requires investment — investments in education and training needed for women and girls to compete for opportunities on the same basis as men. It is vitally important that more girls enter school, stay in school, and graduate with degrees. While primary school enrolment has increased globally, there are still far too many children of primary school age who have never enrolled or have dropped out.

Governments, the international community, NGOs and the private sector must partner closely with communities and schools to support families, especially rural families, so that their daughters and sons can finish school.

Governments and civil society must also work harder to create more opportunities for adults to return to school, gaining access to the classroom learning that has not been available in the past. Two-thirds of the 800 million adults who cannot read or write are women. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate women and men who have shown the courage to enter adult literacy schools in Liberia.

Community radio, mobile phones, and access to the internet are powerful tools for education, enabling people in remote areas to join in discussions of ideas and discoveries and debate their importance for the future. Unfortunately, many women and men, especially in rural and remote areas in African countries, have no access to these platforms owing to the lack of investment in rural areas.

Greater incentives must be made available to ensure that more young women are entering colleges and universities. I would like to issue a particular challenge to the universities and colleges in Liberia not only to recruit more young women, but to develop guidance programs that will encourage these young women to pursue studies in the areas of science, technology, medicine, engineering, agriculture, and economics.

Around the world, few women are leaders at scientific institutions, head large technology companies or become members of scientific boards. Women are also underrepresented in the field of research and development, whether in academia, the public sector or private companies.

It is time to change this situation. Science, technology and innovation can facilitate efforts to eradicate poverty, achieve food security, fight diseases, improve education quality and increase decent work opportunities.

Developing women's competencies and ensuring their equal access will widen the talents and perspectives countries can draw on to meet these challenges. We must unleash the power of women's involvement in sciences.

How will agriculture become a better field of work for rural women, without female agronomists in our Ministries of Agriculture and our Agricultural Research Centers? How will technology advance to ease rural women's workloads if we do not have female engineers tackling the specific challenges of female farmers? How will we stop women from dying in childbirth, without more professionally trained midwives, obstetricians and gynaecologists?

My own experience has taught me that there is no limit to what women can do — given equal opportunities and access to resources. I also know the importance of role models in entering new fields. Your President standing next to me is the best possible example of this.

Thank you for sharing this moment with us on this special 100 year anniversary of international women's day.

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