Imagine a world in which every girl and boy has an opportunity to receive a quality education. All children would be nurtured from birth and given the skills necessary to take their place in the global community. Imagine a world where being born female doesn’t condemn a child to a life of danger and missed opportunities.
At UNICEF we work to make that world a reality. We are committed to ensuring that all children – regardless of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background or circumstances – realize their right to a quality education. To that end, UNICEF supports innovative programmes and initiatives that focus on the world’s most excluded and vulnerable children, including girls, the disabled, ethnic minorities, the rural and urban poor, victims of conflict and natural disasters and children affected by HIV and AIDS.
UNICEF helps governments, communities and parents gain the capacities and skills they need to fulfill their obligations for children. These obligations include ensuring the right of all children to free, compulsory quality education, even during a humanitarian crisis, in the recovery period after a crisis, or in fragile or unstable situations. We focus on gender equality and work towards eliminating disparities of all kinds.
Working with a broad range of local, national and international partners, we aim to realize the educational and gender-equality goals established in the Millennium Declaration and the Declaration on Education for All, and to bring about essential structural changes that are necessary to achieve social justice and equality for all. Our priorities are informed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (external link to www.unicef.org/crc) and a number of other internationally agreed commitments, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Education for All and World Fit for Children and targets. We are guided by the UNICEF Global Education Strategy and UNICEF's 2006–2013 Medium-Term Strategic Plan, which places special emphasis on basic education and gender equality.
UNICEF is committed to taking action where it is needed most, and our priorities reflect this core value. They include:
Early Childhood Development (ECD) and school readiness (internal link to ECD page): In recent decades there has been a growing recognition among economists, educators and scientists of the importance of the first five to six years of life in the formation of intelligence, personality, and social behavior. What and how much children learn later in school largely depends on the social, emotional and cognitive skills they develop in their first few years. Early childhood programmes that focus on developing skills in these young children can affect their later well-being, especially those children at risk of poor health, inadequate nutrition and school failure.
UNICEF supports countries to develop the capacities to improve children’s developmental readiness to start primary school on time, especially for marginalized children, and to complete a quality basic education. To that end, UNICEF promotes awareness raising and education for parents, community-based programmes for ECD, formal preschool programmes that use national standards for school readiness, and an innovative approach that enables older children already in school to provide support to younger children to help them develop necessary competencies and be ready to start school.
Equal access to education and universal primary school education (internal link to equitable access page): To reduce the number of children who are out of school around the world, UNICEF tailors programmes to respond to the needs of specific countries. One such programme is the School Fee Abolition Initiative, which enables countries that have taken pioneering steps to eliminate fees and other costs to share their experiences and best practices with countries considering a similar move. The initiative also provides practical and financial support to these countries and targeted fee exemptions, subsidies and incentives for the poor, knowing that household costs of schooling are a major barrier preventing children from accessing basic education. Other steps include providing essential services, such as health, through schools and establishing educational standards.
While UNICEF continues to recognize gender as a critical dimension as it relates to access, participation and completion of a quality education, there is also a focus on other areas of disparity within populations. Disadvantaged and marginalized children usually suffer from a range of socio-cultural and economic inequities that must be addressed in education, as in all other developmental areas, if the MDGs are to be achieved. UNICEF’s education programming targets not only girls but also rural and urban poor, ethnic minorities and indigenous populations. UNICEF works to identify the bottlenecks that inhibit school participation and to understand the complex profiles of out-of-school children that reflect the multiple deprivations and disparities they face in relation to education.
Enhancing quality in primary and secondary education (internal link to quality page): The focus on increasing access to education that was generated by the Dakar and Millennium Declarations led to increased pressure on already-strained education systems around the world, taking a toll on the quality of education being delivered to children. UNICEF focuses on innovative ways to improve the quality of learning opportunities for all students. This not only ensures that more children enter school, but it also helps students stay there. The child-friendly schools model is at the centre of this area of focus, including an emphasis on safe, healthy, inclusive and gender-sensitive school environments, relevant curricula and child-centred teaching and learning practices. Addressing quality also means continuing to cultivate critical thinking and develop skills to adapt to changing environmental conditions and their impact on education.
UNICEF promotes the child-friendly schooling model as a packaged, human rights-based, child-centred approach addressing all aspects of quality education. The model can be adapted to diverse needs and contexts across the world. Child-friendly schooling helps countries promote quality in education and sets standards for improvement in everything from school infrastructure to learning outcomes.
Education in emergencies and post-crisis transitions (internal link to EiE page): All children have the right to an education, even in emergencies and post-crisis situations. In fact, schools take on an added significance in those contexts – whether they are natural or man-made disasters. Schools offer protection and help to restore a sense of normalcy for children, enabling them to overcome the emotional trauma they have suffered. In an emergency and its aftermath, UNICEF is committed to getting all children back to school or into school for the first time. Paradoxically, emergencies provide a window of opportunity for marginalized children to participate in education.
Increasingly, UNICEF also supports initiatives to predict and prevent natural disasters and civil conflicts – and to be better prepared should they occur. In addition, UNICEF’s emerging work on peacebuilding through education promotes the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values needed to bring about behaviour change that will enable children, youth and adults to prevent conflict and violence, to resolve conflict peacefully and to create conditions conducive to peace.
Empowerment of women through girls’ education and gender equality in education: The concept of gender equality is essential to the achievement of quality basic education, and ultimately secondary education, as reflected in the MDGs and Education for All goals. Gender equality connects the idea of quality education for all with the wider processes of achieving social justice in society. Equal opportunities in education within the classroom, school and education system as a whole empower girls, who, despite recent progress, continue to suffer severe disadvantage in terms of access to and participation in education in many countries and regions.
UNICEF is working to close the gap between girls and boys by assessing the degree of educational disadvantage that girls face, as well as by identifying gender-related obstacles and implementing interventions to remove and overcome them. UNICEF’s contribution to gender equality is fundamentally grounded in a mutually reinforcing relationship between the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Both conventions indicate clearly what this entails for work in education.
In addition to these and other human rights treaties and conventions, UNICEF adheres to global commitments that call for addressing specific gender issues in education to enable children, especially girls, to realize their rights to a quality education. Some of the most important are the World Declaration on Education for All (1990), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), the Education for All Dakar Framework for Action (2000) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000).
Through the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), we champion the rights of girls and help countries achieve gender equality in education. UNICEF serves as lead agency and hosts the Secretariat of the UNGEI partnership. In addition, we promote life skills-based education and support female role models in education. Child-Friendly Schools promote gender equality in the classroom by providing an overall gender-sensitive environment that is conducive to learning at all levels.