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Forum on Girls' Education

Image de l'UNICEF

New York, 7 September 2000

Mrs. Annan, Excellencies, First Spouses, Dr. Mlama, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I want to join in welcoming all of you to this Millennium Assembly Forum on Girls' Education -- and I want to thank our Honorary Chair, Mrs. Annan, for her initiative in bringing us together today -- an initiative that grows out of her strong personal commitment to the issue of girls' education.

I also thank her for her moving and insightful remarks, which have set a tone of personal involvement and commitment that I hope will be reflected throughout this meeting.

Even after a decade of international conferences -- and with all due respect to the meetings under way next door -- this gathering here today is truly historic in scale. Rarely have so many first spouses gathered to discuss a single global issue.

That the subject before us is girls' education is enormously gratifying -- for I am convinced that educating the girls of the world is the single most challenging issue facing us in development today.

As first spouses, you bring to this room an unparalleled wealth of experiences -- experiences gained through personal histories, and through keen observations of your own countries and the dynamic in which political decisions are made.

Because of the sheer diversity of participants here today, we have an unusual opportunity to share and to learn from each other -- and I know that by the time we are done, we will all have gained a better understanding of the demands, rewards and challenges of girls' education on a global scale.

In this connection, we owe a great debt of gratitude to the Secretary-General, who not only announced the UN Girls' Education Initiative at the World Education Forum at Dakar in April -- but made girls' education a priority in his remarkable Report to the Millennium Assembly, titled We the Peoples.

In so doing, the Secretary-General has reminded us of an important truth: that there can be no significant or sustainable transformation in societies -- and no significant and lasting reduction in global poverty -- until girls receive the quality basic education they deserve and take their rightful place as equal partners in development.

In study after study -- by the UN, by the World Bank, by academics the world over -- girls' education emerges as the single best investment that any society can make.

It provides enormous economic benefits for the country; decreases social burdens on governments; and makes it possible to create larger, better prepared work forces.

Indeed, a quality basic education for girls is the essential prerequisite for the conquest of poverty -- which has become the over-arching goal of the United Nations and the international community in this new century.

Educated girls grow into educated women -- women who are more likely to participate in making decisions that affect their lives and the lives of those they love. They will understand more fully the dangers of the scourge of HIV/AIDS. And they are more likely to be healthy, to have smaller families, and to have healthier and better-educated children.

Only education can equip girls with the confidence to make the most of their abilities; that can provide a means for changing attitudes about violence while promoting equality; and that can put young women on a path to economic and social empowerment.

Quality education and basic literacy will open the doors to information technology and the "new economy" and prevent the "digital divide" from becoming a new gender divide.

But girls' education is more than a cost-effective investment; more than an economic issue; more than a desirable aspiration that societies should try to provide. Education, particularly girls' education, is an inalienable human right, guaranteed under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been signed and ratified by every country in the world today save two.

Any one of these reasons is itself a powerful argument for girls' education. Yet we continue to face a situation in which girls remain at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to obtaining their right to a quality basic education. Consider these facts:

There are some 700 million children between 6 and 11 years old. More than 110 million of them are not in school -- and some two-thirds of those children are girls.

While we can spot persistent and obvious gender gaps in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East -- national level data hide disparities in all countries in all regions, in developing countries and industrialized countries alike.

Why should this be so? Quite frankly, in many parts of the world there are deep-rooted obstacles to educating girls. Cultural traditions and practices sometimes forbid it. Competing claims from families and communities sometimes mean that a girl is sent to work when she should be sent to school. And politics sometimes forces communities to think they must chose between educating boys and educating girls, and the choice is often made to educate boys -- when the right answer is to educate both.

Moreover, the enervating and degrading effects of poverty often mean that educating the girls in the family is not even contemplated. Generally, when girls do not attend school it is not because their parents do not love or cherish them, but because families living in abject poverty need every available source of income. And it is who girls must look after their younger siblings while mothers earn family income.

There are also constraints within education systems, including lack of access, poor-quality teaching, high education costs, gender biases, the absence of female role models, an entrenched assumption that the "average" student is a boy -- and the fact that even in the same classroom, girls and boys have very different educational experiences.

In recent years, a proliferation of economic and humanitarian crises worldwide has also begun to threaten many hard-won gains in girls' education.

Economic restructuring and the increasing emphasis on the private sector has caused declines in educational opportunities, particularly for girls. The adverse impact of uncontrolled globalization and of religious fundamentalism are all having negative impacts on girls' education.

Perhaps worst of all, the pandemic of HIV/AIDS is striking at children and women at an alarming rate -- and it is simultaneously destroying the educational infrastructure of many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet a number of disparate countries, in different parts of the world, have given us outstanding demonstrations of how, despite all these obstacles, it is possible to make significant progress in the education of girls. Their example proves that we do not need new studies. We do not need new institutions. And we do not need impossible amounts of new resources.

During my tenure at UNICEF, I have been most deeply impressed by what I have seen happening in work "on the ground" -- through work being carried out by parents and teachers, by village councils, by local authorities, by national governments, and by the bilateral and multilateral international community, including partners like the Governments of Norway, Canada, France, and the United States.

In Chad, girls' school enrolment has tripled in zones where special efforts were made to work with parents and communities to overcome prejudice against schooling girls. In Haiti, the Ministry of Education has set up a special unit to address the education of girls.

In Benin, a programme enables older girls to mentor younger ones to keep them focused on their studies. In Bangladesh, a programme to hire local female teachers has encouraged girls to come to school and to stay there.

In Kosovo, UN agencies are mobilizing to reverse a decline in girls' participation in education. And in Zambia, the Government and its partners have developed a checklist for a "girl friendly" schools.

Moreover, in my visits to many of the countries in which UNICEF has girls' education programmes, I have found reasons to be encouraged and heartened.

In a village in Egypt, I was moved by the gentle dignity of a young girl as she spoke about the respect she is given simply because she now goes to school. In a classroom in Zambia, I witnessed the new-found assertiveness of young girls as they learned the truth about HIV/AIDS transmission and armed themselves with the greatest weapons of protection: judgment and self-assurance. And in a makeshift classroom in a sprawling displaced-persons camp in Liberia, I saw the pride of a young girl as she showed me the story of her village that she had just written.

Such scenes are the result of concrete action in support of girls' education. With help from its partners, UNICEF has established "schools of the air" and home schooling in communities where there are extremely restricted learning environments.

We have been able to set up "non-traditional" schools for girls (and boys) who are sent to work -- holding classes in places you would never think of as a school -- and at times you might not think of as school hours.

We have helped establish "satellite" schools to make it easier for rural children, especially girls, to attend class.

With our partners, we have developed school curriculums and even design school buildings that respect the needs of girls. We have been able to establish mentoring programmes that enable older girls to mentor younger ones and keep them in school.

There are, of course, many other excellent examples in many other countries, some of which I am sure we will hear about today.

All of them illustrate why the UN Girls' Education Initiative is so important -- and why, as the Secretary-General said in launching it, that implementing its goals will require all our sensitivity, imagination, and determination -- and will, indeed, be a test of our entire international community.

The Girls' Education Initiative is an active partnership -- of UN agencies, of governments, of bilaterals, and of NGOs -- and is linked to the overall movement to achieve Education for All. We at UNICEF were honoured when the Secretary-General asked us to serve as lead agency within the UN system for this effort. But it has been clear from the beginning that the Girls' Education Initiative can only achieve success through national commitments -- commitments made with the support of all stakeholders. And so I invite all First Spouses to join our broad partnership as advocates and supporters of education for girls at both the national and global levels.

And I want also to acknowledge my colleagues at other UN agencies -- especially Catherine Bertini at the World Food Programme and Mark Malloch Brown at the UN Development Programme. The Girls" Education Initiative has been an opportunity for us to develop an even closer working relationship, and that is yielding benefits in a great many areas.

I also want to point out also that the Initiative is at the core of preparations for the General Assembly's Special Session on Children, which will convene in September of 2001. This Special Session will offer an extraordinary opportunity to reassess the way the world views and treats children -- and the Girls' Education Initiative is already part of the review process.

Among the issues that the Girls' Education Initiative will tackle are girls' work and safety and security in school -- and these important subjects will be addressed by our next speaker, whose expertise encompasses the whole range of girls' education issues.

Dr. Penina Mlama is Executive Director of the Forum for African Women Educationalists, an organisation in the forefront of promoting girls' education on the African continent.

As Executive Director, Dr. Mlama manages FAWE's Regional Secretariat, and oversees the work of 31 national chapters throughout the sub-Saharan region. She is a former Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Dar es Salaam in her home country of Tanzania, where much of her academic work was focused on the use of art as an educational tool. She also has extensive experience in gender analysis and programme development.

Ladies and Gentlemen, UNICEF believes that all the world's children should grow to adulthood in health, peace, and dignity -- experiencing childhood as a joyous experience -- a world of play, of learning and of growth, where they are loved and cherished, where their health and safety is paramount, where their gender is not a liability, where they can indulge their natural curiosity and expend their boundless energy in a just and peaceful environment -- and where they have every opportunity to grow and develop into caring and responsible citizens.

That world has remained a dream for more years than anyone can count. But I am convinced that together, all of us can make it come true -- for each and every child on this planet.

And now it is my great pleasure to introduce our next speaker -- Dr. Mlama.