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UNICEF Executive Director speaks out on girls' education and empowerment

‘Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality’ conference

© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-0406/Pirozzi
Samedi Belvia Micheline, 11, at Cotanof School in the town of Boda in the south-western Lobaye Province of the Central African Republic.

NEW YORK, USA, 17 May 2010 – Speaking at an international conference on education and gender equality, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake today called for accelerated efforts on behalf of “forgotten children” in the run-up to the 2015 deadline for meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

The conference – entitled ‘Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality’ or ‘E4’ – is being organized by the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI). Hosted in Dakar, Senegal, it marks the 10th anniversary of the UNGEI global partnership, capping a decade of significant advances towards closing the gender gap in education.

This progress has not been swift enough, however, to ensure achievement of the MDG benchmark on universal primary education and gender parity.

“The sad reality is that if our progress continues at its current pace, by 2015 there still will be approximately 56 million children out of school,” Mr. Lake said at the opening session of the E4 meeting. “And worse: You can count on those children being the hardest to reach, living in the poorest countries, with the highest and hardest barriers to overcome.”

Barriers to education

Mr. Lake went on to cite several of the biggest barriers to school retention and educational quality. For example:

© UNICEF Senegal/2010/Shryock
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake speaks at the opening ceremony of the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative's 'E4' conference in Dakar, Senegal.

• Children from the poorest 20 per cent of their societies, the so-called ‘fifth quintile’, are much less likely to attend primary school than those in the richest quintile
• Girls in impoverished rural households are the most likely to be excluded from primary school
• Children from indigenous and minority groups, as well as children with disabilities, are the least likely to be able to attend or stay in school.

“These are the forgotten children,” said Mr. Lake, “marginalized simply because of the economic and social inequities in their societies, left behind simply because they were born poor or female, or of the wrong caste or in the wrong country.”

Agents of change

Despite these obstacles and others – such as the global economic crisis, which is leading some governments to cut back on their investments in education – the UNICEF chief argued that it would be “morally indefensible and strategically short-sighted” to ignore the needs of marginalized children.

“In fact, I believe it is precisely on these ignored, forgotten children that we must refocus our efforts as we approach 2015,” Mr. Lake said, echoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s assertion that children “are at the very heart of all the MDGs.”

Indeed, the evidence shows that educated girls, in particular, grow into agents of change for their families, communities and societies as a whole. Providing girls with quality education can be a highly effective tool to address poverty, fight disease and improve economic development.

“For UNICEF, all of our goals and all of the gains we may make – whether child survival, maternal and child health, or child protection – hinge in the long run on education,” said Mr. Lake. “It is the only way to sustain the gains we make.”

‘A broader agenda’

For all of these reasons, UNGEI partners at the conference in Senegal are discussing how to steer more international funding towards education and gender equality. They are also advocating for governments to make positive changes in their own national policies on education.

But at the same time, Mr. Lake cautioned, “education alone does not equal empowerment.” He noted that in some cases, “countries can achieve significant gender parity in education but still fail to translate these gains into more meaningful participation by women at every level of society.”

Full participation can be fostered by involving girls in social support networks that help them stay in school, and by encouraging them to participate actively in making decisions that affect their lives. UNGEI is already supporting such initiatives in many places.

“The time has come for us to accelerate our efforts – and to look beyond gender parity to a broader agenda,” Mr. Lake concluded in his speech at the E4 meeting. “That is what we are here to do.”



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