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Goal: Promote gender equality and empower women

Target by 2005:
Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education.

While most of the Millennium Development Goals face a deadline of 2015, the gender parity target was set to be achieved a full ten years earlier - an acknowledgement that equal access to education is the foundation for all other development goals. Yet recent statistics show that for every 100 boys out of school, there are still 117 girls in the same situation. Until equal numbers of girls and boys are in school, it will be impossible to build the knowledge necessary to eradicate poverty and hunger, combat disease and ensure environmental sustainability. And millions of children and women will continue to die needlessly, placing the rest of the development agenda at risk.

Target by 2015:
Eliminate gender disparity at all levels of education by 2015 and empower women.

Advancing the rights of women and children advances humanity.

Two-thirds of the world’s 799 million illiterate adults ages 15 and over are women.

Many children in developing countries start life without adequate means of nutrition, learning, and protection.  Women and girls are particularly challenged.

Some 67 countries have primary school attendance and enrolment rates for girls less than 85 per cent. Globally, there are just 96 girls for every 100 boys in primary school, with disparities at the secondary level even more acute. Yet uneducated girls are more at risk than boys to become marginalized. They are more vulnerable to exploitation.  They are more likely than educated girls to contract HIV/AIDS, which spreads twice as quickly among uneducated girls than among girls that have even some schooling. Nearly a third of all adults living with HIV/AIDS are under the age of 25, and almost two thirds of these people are women.

As unschooled adults, these girls will be less likely to have a say socially and politically and to be able to support themselves. Women’s rights and access to land, credit and education are limited not only due to legal discrimination, but because more subtle barriers such as their work load, mobility and low bargaining position in the household and community prevent them from taking advantage of their legal rights. These problems affect their children: Women earn only one tenth of the world’s income and own less than one per cent of property, so households without a male head are at special risk of impoverishment. These women will also be less likely to immunize their children and know how to help them survive.

Gender bias undercuts women’s rights in other areas. Practices such as early marriage or poor health services result in high rates of maternal mortality.  Some 529,000 women died giving birth last year, 99 per cent of them in developing countries. For each birth-related death, 30 other women were injured or disabled. Having a missing or disabled mother severely undercuts a child’s chances of survival and health as well.

The world has recognized the importance of gender equality. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, sets forth provisions that include civil rights and freedoms, family environment, basic health and welfare, education, leisure and cultural activities and special protection measures for all children. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and acceded to by 180 States, sets down rights for women, of freedom from discrimination and equality under the law. Realizing the rights and equality of women is also the key to the survival and development of children and to building healthy families, communities and nations.

UNICEF responds by:

Getting girls into quality school environments helping them stay there. Some 121 million children are not in school, most of them girls.  If a family can afford school fees for only one child, it will likely be a boy who attends.  If someone needs to fetch water or do housework instead of going to school, a girl will likely be chosen. If someone needs to stay home to care for younger siblings or sick or infirm household members, this will most likely be a girl: girls will also most likely be withdrawn from school early in adolescence as the age of marriage approaches.

Yet study after study shows that educating girls is the single most effective policy to raise overall economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, educate the next generation, improve nutrition and promote health. Girls with at least six years of school education are more likely to be able to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Educated mothers immunize their children 50 per cent more often than mothers who are not educated, and their children have a 40 per cent higher survival rate. Moreover, mothers who have had some education are more than twice as likely to send their own children to school as are mothers with no education.

Getting girls into school and ensuring that they learn and thrive in quality, child-friendly learning environments are key UNICEF priorities, fulfilling Millennium Goal 2 of universal primary education as well as this Goal. As lead agency for the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) UNICEF is coordinating efforts of a broad range of partners at global, regional, and national levels to meet the goals of gender parity and equality in education.

By working with these partners, by raising awareness via our field offices in 158 countries and territories and through international media campaigns, by funding and supplies procurement, by assisting governments with policy and problem solving when invited to, and by helping communities to mobilize around these issues, UNICEF is working to ensure girls’ right to education is realized.

See map: Maternal education reduces child mortality

Helping women and girls avoid HIV/AIDS. In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV prevalence among teenage girls is five times higher than among teenage boys.  The danger of infection is highest among the poorest and least powerful, particularly children who live among violence, suffer sexual exploitation or have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

See map: Education and HIV/AIDS and malaria reduction

Through government advocacy and community outreach, UNICEF helps young women (and men) have access to the information and services they need to prevent and reduce their risk of HIV infection. At policy levels, these include drives to influence social norms regarding sexual behaviour as it relates to the stopping the epidemic, and introducing supportive legislation and policies. Other risk prevention activities include widening access to youth-friendly, gender-sensitive health services that provide voluntary, confidential HIV testing and counselling and provide condoms and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

Broad partnerships are vital to conquering the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and UNICEF is key to strengthening partnerships with UNAIDS, multinational agencies, academic and research institutions, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. UNICEF also leads UN efforts in monitoring and reporting situation analyses, behavioural assessments, and programme results.

Improving maternal health. UNICEF efforts in girls’ education give a boost to this area as well.  If a girl is educated six years or more, as an adult her prenatal care, postnatal care and childbirth survival rates will dramatically and consistently improve. 

The single biggest factor in a healthy birth, however, is the presence of skilled assistance, particularly in emergency obstetrics. UNICEF helps key partners work with governments and policy makers to ensure that emergency obstetric care is a priority in national health plans, and assist governments with training and logistics. 

Maternal care is also an important goal in community health. Along with vaccination campaigns for children, UNICEF procures and distributes tetanus vaccines, micronutrient supplements and insecticide-treated bed nets (to fight malaria) for expectant women. Work within communities includes help coordinating health care services for maximum effectiveness – maternal care with newborn care, for example.

Giving girls a good start in early childhood. A child’s earliest years are critical. Skills such as language acquisition, social competence, coping, the ability to think critically and the capacity to learn, all develop in the first years of life.  Without adequate nutrition, nurturing, health care and psychosocial stimulation, a child’s potential for a competent and productive life is sapped.

Because of entrenched gender bias in many regions, young girls fare less well than boys in many aspects of early childhood, including receiving a worse diet and health care. In fact, there are an estimated 60-100 million fewer women alive today than there would be in a world without gender discrimination and without social norms that favour sons.

To ensure that all young children get the best start in life, UNICEF advocates and helps governments and communities form policies and programmes in health, nutrition, water and environmental sanitation, psycho-social care and early learning, child protection and women’s rights. Emphasis is on strengthening the capacities of families and other caregivers – as most health care takes place at home in developing countries – mobilizing community health and child learning services, and coordinating and integrating maternal health interventions with those focused on early childhood.

Promoting child protection. The UN Millennium Declaration stressed protection of the vulnerable, and for good reason: Tens of millions of children across the globe are victims of exploitation, abuse and violence each year. They are abducted from their homes and schools and recruited into armed conflicts, exploited sexually, or trafficked and forced to work in abominable conditions.  Girls in particular are vulnerable, particularly when not in school.  They also suffer from abuses that may have their society’s mandate, but severely curtail their rights: they are victims of violence in the home, they aren’t allowed to attend school, or are forced into early marriage, or to undergo genital mutilation.

UNICEF raises awareness about the importance of child protection, enhancing capacities at various levels of society and in the government. Programmes and policies that work include birth registration, media awareness, challenging traditional attitudes that lead to abuse, and advocating tougher laws for offenders against children.  UNICEF also works through communities to strengthen safety nets. Schools, for example, are being made places where children go for health services, food and security in addition to learning.

In natural emergencies or conflicts, UNICEF takes special care to provide protective environments in the field for women and girls, who are at greater risk for sexual violence and destitution.

Increasing access to water and sanitation. Out of 100 people in developing countries, 17 will not have safe drinking water (43 in sub-Saharan Africa) and 42 will not have adequate sanitation facilities.  For families without, the burden of finding and hauling safe water usually falls to girls, which often means they aren’t able to attend school.  Too often, too, they are prevented from attending school because of unhygienic latrines or a complete lack of facilities for girls.

Through a combination of advocacy, technical assistance and funding, UNICEF works directly with community-based organizations and families themselves to ensure that households have access to a clean and secure supply of water, and safe and convenient sanitary facilities. Actions might include installing household filter technologies and developing as rainwater harvesting systems, shallow wells and pond filtering systems. These actions also directly support MDG 7 – improving access for all those who desperately need these basic facilities.

UNICEF also works towards making schools healthier and more attractive to children, especially girls, through school-based water, sanitation and hygiene programmes, such as helping install hand-pumps and latrines.


Despite significant progress in achieving gender parity in primary schools, UNICEF projections for 2005 continue to indicate a global gender parity index (GPI) of 0.96, meaning that there are still only 96 girls for every 100 boys in primary school, with significant variations between and within regions and countries. Gender inequalities in primary school are greatest in Western and Central Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. 

Meanwhile, at secondary level, of 75 countries surveyed, only 22 are considered on course to meet the 2005 gender parity goal, while 21 will need to make additional efforts and 25 are far from the goal. At secondary level, the gender gap is most pronounced in South Asia (44% of boys of secondary school age in secondary school compared with only 36% of girls) and in the  Middle East and North Africa (54% of boys compared with  43% of girls).

See the 2005 Progress for Children report

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