2005 and beyond
Girls’ education in South Asia; A technical meeting
7-9 February, 2005
UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy:
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you this morning. I would like to address girls’ education in South Asia in the post-tsunami environment.
The first weeks of this new year have shown us both the destructive power of nature and the transformational power of collective human action. In a rare moment of international common cause, we have seen the very best of humanity in a global experience few of us will ever forget.
We have all been inspired by the humanitarian outpouring of these last weeks. But now, as the news cameras are packed up and the crews leave the beaches of Asia, it is to us to take lessons from this most dramatic of emergencies and apply them to our efforts on behalf of the children of the world. It is to us to make the connection between our pre- and post –tsunami worlds as we continue in our work of ensuring the rights of every child to live healthy and educated lives, free from violence and fear, protected from abuse and exploitation.
For as surely as do the children of the tsunami need our attention and the world’s support so do the children in other emergency countries, for example, in Afghanistan, Darfur, Uganda and the Congo. And so do the children living and dying where the cameras never go, in places where poverty, HIV/AIDS, gender discrimination in health and education, violence and exploitation are the reality and the quiet norm rather than the exception.
So, what have we learned from the tsunami experience?
We have learned
That the world is not a heartless place. Far from it. People can be moved to act on behalf of those beset by tragedy: we saw men and women, girls and boys in every country rush to donate money, to share their time and their talent, to mobilize their friends and families to action.
We have learned
That compassion fatigue is a myth. When given a specific and concrete way to help, people did not turn away from suffering, but instead rushed to provide comfort and support to those pained by loss and grief.
We have learned
That no one person, one agency, or one country can hope to be successful in providing relief on their own. In the face of massive destruction, it has been the coordinated response of governments, agencies, the private sector, communities and individuals that has worked best to restore, rebuild and rehabilitate the tsunami-affected regions. And, what’s more, we have learned that young people themselves are vital to those efforts.
We have learned again
That restoring schools quickly is a vital part of an emergency response. Functioning schools allow children a safe haven in the midst of an emergency and a chance to make sense of the chaos they have witnessed. They allow parents a sense of support as they go about reconstructing their lives; and communities a locus for the coordination of services.
And finally we have learned – most immediately and most dramatically -
That the development compact can work. As devastating as were as the immediate effects of the tsunami, strong infrastructures have allowed countries to control the spread of disease and to re-open schools. Decisive government action has re-united families and protected children from exploitation. Donors have stepped up to their responsibilities.
What can we do with these lessons, learned so tragically and paid for so dearly by the pain and loss of the families of Asia.
I know there was some discussion as to whether this meeting of technical experts in education should go on in the wake of the tsunami. I applaud those who made the decision that it should and applaud those of you who have taken the time to attend. Especially in light of the last minute change of venue.
It is a most tragic irony that within the international reactions to the tsunami emergency we might have might have found what was missing in our decades long efforts to ensure every child their right to an education. We have been discussing this issue for what seems like forever and we have set goal after goal, not meeting the first one, moving it back another decade; not meeting the next one; moving it back yet again.
And in the process, the international community and individual countries have lost more than face and credibility. They have lost the lives and contributions of millions of young girls. Denied their right to an education, the young girls of South Asia have been married before their time and had babies before their bodies and minds were ready for them to be mothers. As a result, many thousands have died in childbirth each year. Many thousands more have been kept from full participation in their communities.
For the poorest young girls, condemned to lives without an education, abuse and sexual exploitation has become their norm, HIV/AIDS their increasingly common fate.
We have already lost millions of young women since the first international commitments to education for all were made. Now in 2005, in the first test of the world’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, many would say that we are about to fail to meet the global goal of gender parity.
But, on behalf of the millions of young girls UNICEF is mandated to protect, we simply refuse to accept such a preventable tragedy. As we refuse to accept that young children can be abducted from their schools and camps with impunity and without accountability, as we refuse to accept that young children can be sold into sexual slavery, as we refuse to accept that HIV/AIDS cannot be stopped, so do we refuse to accept that still another generation of young girls should be condemned to a life without an education.
In every one of your discussions over the next few days here and in your continuing work after you leave here, I urge you to take heed of the lessons of the tsunami.
First, the world is not a heartless place. Those of you tasked with monitoring the lives of children with and without an education, must bring that information to the wider public discourse. Do not be tentative about this; do not wait until you have the perfect answers to why girls are being denied. It is not whether the cause is tradition, culture, gender discrimination, economic. It is each of these alone and all of these together.
Second, enlist the broader community in your efforts to get every girl into school by embracing and advancing the concept of schools as safe haven and child friendly spaces, where the right of every child to learn and grow and play is respected. Reach out to civil society organizations, to the private sector, to children themselves. Encourage them in their shared responsibility. As we learned in the tsunami, when called upon and allowed to participate, people will rise to meet challenges that would otherwise be unmet.
Third, work together, together, and together. I will say it again, together. The days and values of competing organization are of another era. Whether through UN reform or the UN Girls Education Initiative, agencies and NGOs must work together to find every child out of school, create the social conditions to get then into school, and ensure the school environments that will allow every child to thrive and grow to their fullest potential. Surely we can refine our interventions and strategies, and surely some are better than others; but do we really think there is a strategy waiting to be invented, or discovered. It is time, in the words of Nike, to just do it.
Fourth, as you rebuild the schools in the tsunami-affected regions, take the opportunity to strengthen the school experience for children throughout the region. Train more teachers to be gender sensitive, develop child-centered curricula, and teach in a more participatory way. The strength of any region’s schools is the measure of the strength of the region.
And finally, development agencies and governments must step up, on both sides of the compact, on behalf of the young girls’ of the world. During my tenure as head of UNICEF I have seen the joy in the eyes of girls and their families when this has been the case. Girls will not be able to claim their right to an education without government commitment and donor support.
As I get ready to move from UNICEF and onto my next work on behalf of young people, I do so with a mixed sense of pride on how far we have come on behalf of girls’ education and frustration on how far we still have to go.
There was a time not long ago when people would ask “why girls education?’ I think w e have answered that one: because it’s their right, a right that is being systematically denied, and the losers are girls, their families and development.
There was a time not long ago when people would ask, “But what are we to do?” I think we have answered that one too. Pick up any one of the reports outside, they will tell you what is needed to get girls to complete their education.
And so now I leave you with the question, “why not?” With all we know, with all we have learned, why do we continue to live in a world where girls and boys are kept from their most essential right to an education. I leave you to answer that one.
For us at UNICEF, there is no acceptable answers, no more excuses. If the world can mobilize so quickly and effectively against the forces of nature, it can surely mobilize quickly and effectively to make sure that every girl and boy will be in school before the year is out.