Remarks by Executive Director at the Nordic Council of Ministers’ side event on Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women and Girls through Education

Remarks by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the Nordic Council of Ministers’ side event on Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women and Girls through Education, New York, 12 March 2014

Date: Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here with you and I thank the Nordic Council of Ministers for inviting me to participate in this event.

I am also grateful for the steady and growing support from the Nordic countries for the work of UN Women to advance women’s rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality.

The exemplary record of the Nordic countries in providing quality education is also one that we must all learn from.

At UN Women, we recognize the power and the indispensable nature of education and training for girls and young women.

The recently released UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report highlights the important role of education in advancing gender equality and overall development.

It also tells a worrying story.

We see that universal primary education is likely to be missed by a wide margin:

  • The number of children out of school was 57 million in 2011, half of whom lived in conflict-affected countries. 
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, only 23 per cent of poor girls in rural areas were completing primary education by the end of the decade. 
  • If recent trends in the region continue, the richest boys will achieve universal primary completion in 2021, but the poorest girls will not catch up until 2086.

We see that many adolescents lack foundation skills gained through lower secondary education:

  • In 2011, 69 million adolescents were out of school, with little improvement to this number since 2004. 
  • In low-income countries, only 37 per cent of adolescents complete lower secondary education. This rate is as low as 14 per cent for the poorest.
  • On recent trends, girls from the poorest families in sub-Saharan Africa are only expected to achieve lower secondary completion in 2111.

We see that adult literacy has hardly improved:

  • In 2011, there were 774 million illiterate adults, a decline of just 1 per cent since 2000. The number is projected to fall only slightly, to 743 million, by 2015. 
  • Almost two-thirds of illiterate adults are women. The poorest young women in developing countries may not achieve universal literacy until 2072. 

We see that gender disparities remain in many countries:

  • Even though gender parity was supposed to be achieved by 2005, in 2011 only 60 per cent of countries had achieved this goal at the primary level and 38 per cent at the secondary level.

We know that poor quality of education means millions of children are not learning the basics.

  • Around 250 million children are not learning basic skills, even though half of them have spent at least four years in school. The annual cost of this failure is around USD $129 billion. 
  • Investing in teachers is key: in around a third of countries, less than 75 per cent of primary school teachers are trained according to national standards. And in a third of countries, the challenge of training existing teachers is worse than that of recruiting and training new teachers.

We can and we must do better. So I hope we will focus on how we are going to do that today during our discussions.

Together must do more to reverse this trajectory.

We will not get far if we stop at giving girls primary education. We must provide opportunities and options for them to go higher – as far as they wish to go.

We will work through the Secretary-General's Global Education First Initiative, and other initiatives and programmes, to ensure that girls everywhere have, not only an opportunity to enrol in primary school, but to progress to secondary, tertiary and vocational levels.

We will also work to ensure that at all levels, girls have a real chance to be safe and learn in the classroom and to be empowered.

We are already working closely with civil society and the private sector towards these ends.

Together with USAID and Cisco Systems, we have a successful programme in Jordan called “Women’s Achieving E-Quality in the ICT Sector.

The programme links graduates with local and regional ICT job markets. I was there last month and it was exciting to see progress!

We are also working with Microsoft and Intel to provide digital literacy training to connect young women to the internet, opportunities and networks.

We have also engaged with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in a programme called, “Voices against Violence, to prevent and end violence against girls and women.

I look forward to our discussions.

I look forward to strengthening partnerships with you to place the education of women and girls at the heart of the global work to empower women and girls.

I count on your advocacy and support to ensure that the post-2015 development agenda and the sustainable development goals reflect the critical nexus between gender equality and women’s and girls’ full access to education at all levels.

Thank you.