UN Women Deputy Executive Director calls for empowering women through education

Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at the Open Society Foundation on the "Right to education in the post-2015 development agenda" in New York on 24 September, 2013

Date: Tuesday, September 24, 2013

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Your Excellencies, fellow panelists, ladies and gentlemen.

I am honoured to be participating in this very important side event on the right to education in the post-2015 agenda. 

I sincerely thank the International Council for Adult Education, the Global Campaign for Education and all of the convening organizations for inviting me to speak today. 

UN Women considers that education is one of the greatest game-changers for women and girls around the world. It is both an enabler and force multiplier for women’s economic, political and social empowerment and gender equality. Education is also a preventative force for violence against women, as recently recognized in the outcome document of the 57th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57). 

A child raised by a woman who can read is 50 per cent more likely to survive beyond age five. In fact, improvements in women’s education explained half of the reduction in child deaths between 1990 and 2009. Similarly, wages, agricultural income and productivity, all critical for reducing poverty, are higher where women involved in agriculture receive a better education. Investing in education and women’s empowerment and gender equality are therefore inter-generational investments.

The inter-linkages between education and gender equality and women’s empowerment are recognized in numerous international documents, including in the Millennium Declaration and in Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Two and Three, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and in the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. 

In fact, the Beijing Platform for Action identified education and training for women as a critical area of concern, stating – “Education is human right and an essential tool for achieving the goals of equality, development and peace. Non-discriminatory education benefits both girls and boys and thus ultimately contributes to more equal relationships between women and men.” 
We are on the eve of commemorating the 20th anniversary of Beijing, and as we can see it remains highly relevant as the guiding framework for gender equality and women’s empowerment. 

Such recognition of the importance of education has mobilized international efforts and resources, and in the last 15 or so years there have been some notable results for women and girls.    

Gender parity in primary school enrollment is close to being achieved. However, girls represent 53 per cent of the out-of-school population of primary age in developing countries and there are regional disparities - in Sub-Saharan Africa 26 per cent of girls are out of primary school. Worryingly, gender gaps in secondary school attendance remain largely the same since the 1990s. 

Also, girls from rural areas, ethnic minorities and indigenous groups continue to have the lowest levels of literacy and education, with disparities becoming more marked at secondary level and even greater at tertiary level. These factors all contribute to the fact that today, two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. And they deserve a second chance to be educated.

Clearly much more needs to be done to make MDG Two a genuine achievement and to address seriously the stagnation in secondary education attendance and to include in any future framework equal access to tertiary education. The transition from education to the labour force, vocational training and the promotion of lifelong learning are important areas of focus which must also be addressed. 

UN Women has been advocating for actions on women and girls’ education to go beyond mere numerical parity to address quality and equality in learning outcomes and equal opportunities, including mobilizing stronger interventions to help girls complete primary, secondary and tertiary education. 

We do this as a member of the Steering Committee of the UN Secretary-General’s Education First Initiative—a five-year global initiative to give a stronger impetus to the global movement for education and achieve quality, relevant and inclusive education for all by 2015. Also important is the universal values inculcated through education. 

We have made education an important part of our proposed stand-alone goal on achieving gender equality, women’s rights, and women’s empowerment in the post-2015 development framework. In addition to a stand-alone goal, gender perspectives should be mainstreamed in all other goals, especially in any education goal. 

The stand-alone gender equality goal must be transformational and address the structural causes of gender inequalities and discrimination. Education is key to this transformation in gender relations.

Our proposed gender goal has three components: freedom from violence; capabilities and resources; and voice, leadership and participation. Education is of course a major enabling factor in achieving all areas. In particular, we propose a target on promoting education and skills for women and girls, including life skills. 

This target should look beyond just gender parity in education, to areas such as girls’ transition to secondary education, women’s participation in science and engineering fields at tertiary level, and even access to the internet, in recognition of the importance of women’s access to technology.

I see in the organizations represented here a groundswell of advocacy in support of these and related ideals. We must all make concerted efforts to leverage the political will and resources to effect change:  the right to education for all, leveling inequalities and creating a future in which girls and boys, women and men can fully realize their potential. 

Thank you.