Speech by Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, at the event “Empowering Girls through Education”


Speech by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, at the event “Empowering Girls through Education, New York, 11 October 2012, on the occasion of the first International Day of the Girl Child.

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Good afternoon. I thank the Permanent Missions of Canada, Turkey and Peru for hosting this event and for spearheading the creation of The International Day of the Girl Child.

Thank you to Rona Ambrose, who really propelled this movement from the beginning. You are an example to girls and women everywhere of how to raise your voice in political and public life to push for something you believe in.

Greetings to Nigel Chapman and Plan International for all of your work on the “Because I am a Girl campaign and for your invaluable report on the state of the world's girls and education.

I would also like to give a special welcome to Fabiola, who is here today from Cameroon. Fabiola participated in this year's Commission on the Status of Women, and she was a vocal proponent of women's and girls' rights. She actively campaigned to create an International Day of the Girl Child. And she's raising her voice at home to eliminate child marriage in her community. Her hard work has already led to results. Child marriage is virtually nonexistent in her village now. All of this, and Fabiola is still a student. What an example of determination and dedication to the rights of girls in her community.

And I would like to condemn the attack a few days ago on a 14-year old girl in Pakistan who has bravely spoken out for the rights of girls to education. For speaking out, Malala was attacked along with two of her schoolmates. This attack is an attack on human rights and human dignity for all and it underlines the importance of this first International Day of the Girl Child.

Together we must do more to promote and protect the rights of girls. I say this because no enduring solution to the challenges of our day- from climate change to political and economic stability to ending poverty- can be solved without the full participation of girls and women.

The theme of this year's International Day calls attention to a violation of girls' rights that hits at the heart of gender inequality and discrimination. Child marriage is not only a violation of a girl's right to choose whom and when she marries. It poses life-threatening risks: of violence, early pregnancy, maternal death and disability, and HIV infection.

The number one killers of 15-19 year old adolescent girls worldwide are pregnancy and maternal conditions. For those under 15, the risks are 5 times higher than for women in their 20s. Despite these risks, around 1 in 3 young women aged 20-24 are married before the age of 18.

Not surprisingly, girls who stay in school lower their risk of all the factors associated with child marriage. Girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children.

Women with an education are empowered with more choices; they are healthier, marry later, and have healthier children. They have better access to family planning and information on sexual and reproductive health.

We focus on girls' education because it sets them on a path to greater economic opportunities and participation in their societies. But the story doesn't end here.

We applaud Plan International for its comprehensive report on education in the 2012 “State of the World's Girls. One line from the report stuck with me: “Education alone may not be sufficient to transform the society we live in, but transformation can never be achieved without it.

That is why we must broaden our efforts and take a comprehensive approach to gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women. The crucial right to education must be reinforced by the promotion and protection of all human rights. A woman with a secondary education is not guaranteed economic success if she is still likely to be turned away from a job because she is a woman. We must keep up our efforts to end discrimination against women and advance decent work and equal opportunities for all.

Women's rights to own land and property, access to credit, and basic services like clean energy, water and sanitation all increase the chances of their daughters going to school and lifting them out of poverty.

As we increase access to education for girls, we must also guarantee them protection from physical and sexual harm. Schools can provide safe havens for girls, but they also can put girls at risk of harassment and violence. Better security, teacher training, and more female teachers are part of a gender-responsive strategy, and they can all keep girls out of harm's way.

At UN Women, we strongly believe in the power of girls' education. In the UN Adolescent Girls Task Force, we are working closely with UNFPA and UNICEF in Guatemala, Liberia, Ethiopia and Malawi on comprehensive programmes to advance the rights of adolescent girls.

Through the Fund for Gender Equality, UN Women is providing grants to support innovative programmes by government agencies and civil society groups to advance the goals of equal access to quality education. In Uganda, for example, the Forum for Women in Democracy has influenced the Ministry of Education to spearhead policy guidelines on teen pregnancies and motherhood in educational institutions and has established scholarships for girls.

I always say that we need the support of individuals, civil society groups, community organizations and the private sector to make headway for gender equality. We especially need governments to take action. Policy is a powerful instrument in changing practices and advancing equality.

We welcome efforts to register female births and issue identification to girls so that no child is in danger of “disappearing. We welcome new measures to create fairer policies and laws based on newly collected data and information. And we strongly encourage you to bring more women policymakers and decision makers on board to understand and respond to the specific needs and concerns of girls and women.

We also believe that education has a pivotal role in ending violence against women and girls around the world. The theme of next year's CSW will focus on eliminating and preventing all forms of violence against women and girls. We count on all of you to adopt resolutions and agreed conclusions that reinforce strong actions and political will to end gender-based violence.

I thank you once again for your hard work and congratulate you on the first International Day of the Girl Child. I pledge the strong support of UN Women to improve the lives of girls and women.

Thank you.