Policy advocacy and partnerships for children's rights

Strides still needed in girls' education, says women's rights expert

'Progress for Children' interview series

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© Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Crowley
Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta, former president of the International Center for Research on Women.

By Lorna O'Hanlon

The 2010 edition of UNICEF’s 'Progress for Children' shows that despite advancement towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), many of the poorest and most disadvantaged children are still missing out. UNICEF invited several experts to offer their insights on what can be done to realize the MDGs for all.

NEW YORK, USA, 7 September 2010 – Education is a key component of United Nations Millennium Development Goal 3: to promote gender equality and empowerment of women. According to UNICEF’s flagship ‘Progress for Children’ report 2010 – subtitled ’Achieving the MDGs with Equity’ – most countries have reached or are close to reaching the MDG target for gender parity in primary education.

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Nonetheless, disparities continue to persist at both primary and secondary school levels. While girls’ primary school enrolment is now over 82 per cent worldwide, it is not yet on par with boys’ enrolment, which stands at about 85 per cent.

Investing in girls’ education

According to Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta, former president of the International Centre for Research and Women, the education target has made an important difference in the lives of girls and women.

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© UNICEF/NYHQ2008-1473/Bonn
A girl washes clothes in a bucket in Kenya's Rift Valley province.

“MDG 3,” she says, “has certainly helped to serve as a rallying point to get more attention to gender equality and the empowerment of women. As a result, investment to address women’s constraints and needs has increased and resulted in some progress."

But despite these strides, analysis of the latest available data in ‘Progress for Children: Achieving the MDGs with Equity’ shows that progress has not benefited all girls equally.

“The girls who are left behind are the ones who are most in need – and these are poor girls, those who belong to minority populations within their countries and those who live in rural areas,” Dr. Rao Gupta added. “Unfortunately, they are the ones who still have not received the benefits of the various investments made in most countries around the world.”  

Interventions that work

At secondary school level, girls’ enrolment continues to lag behind that of boys in four out of six regions globally. It is lowest in South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Dr. Rao Gupta said that in order to achieve any of the MDGs, special focus must be put on girls and women to ensure they have equal access to resources and their rights are realized.

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© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1846/Markisz
Girls and boys chat outside a classroom at La Unión Educational Institute Secondary School in the Colombia's northern municipality of Lorica.

She cited specific strategies that have improved girls’ access to education, such as the elimination of school fees and the adoption of subsidies and cash transfers to incentivize families to send their daughters to school.

The elimination of school fees in Kenya in 2003, for example, has led to increasing numbers of girls – and boys – attending school.
 
And in Malawi, a cash transfer programme has reduced the dropout rate among adolescent girls by more than 40 per cent and substantially increased their regular school attendance, according to a 2010 World Bank study. 

Future transformed

Dr. Rao Gupta believes that these kinds of success stories prove that the return value on investing in girls’ education is high. 

“Over the last five years, I would say that the focus on adolescent girls and the possibilities that they hold in their hands has certainly been more evocatively and compellingly established than ever before,” she said.

“If we continue to invest in adolescent girls, we will transform the future for all,” she added.


 

 

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16 August 2010:  Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta is the former president of the International Center for Research on Women. She spoke with UNICEF on the importance of empowering and educating girls in order to achieve all of the Millennium Development Goals.
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Here's a transcript of the interview. [PDF]

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