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UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake, opens the UNGEI global conference on girls’ education

Opening Ceremony Remarks by Anthony Lake - DAKAR, Senegal, 17 May 2010

Thank you, everyone, for that warm welcome. I’m very excited to be here and to be part of such an important gathering.

It is an honor to be joined by His Excellency Prime Minister Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye and Education Minister Kalidou Diallo. And though he is not here this afternoon, I want to thank President Wade for putting education for all at the center of his agenda, and for making gender parity not only a personal passion but a policy priority as well.

I am grateful to my colleagues at UNGEI, UNESCO and UNICEF who have made this conference – and so much of the global progress we are making -- possible. Thank you all.

And a special thank you to Senegal for leading and hosting so many global events promoting education for all.

Things have been changing in Senegal.

Today there are twice as many public schools here as there were in 2000 -- many that intentionally include disadvantaged children. And girls now fill as many seats as boys. Senegal is proof that we can and are making progress, both here and in other African countries.

In fact, we are seeing school enrolment rise and gender gaps narrow in countries around the world, especially in Latin America, east Asia and central and eastern Europe.

But huge global challenges remain, especially in secondary school retention and educational quality.

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. 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. For example:

  • Children from the poorest twenty percent of their societies, the so-called “fifth quintile,” are two to three times less likely to attend primary school than those in the richest quintile. And on no continent will you find a larger proportion of the population so disadvantaged as in Africa.
  • Girls in rural or very poorest households are most likely to be excluded from primary school.
  • Children from indigenous and minority groups represent the largest percentage of those out of school – between 50 and 70 percent, worldwide.
  • And children with disabilities are the least likely to go to school at all, ever.

These are the forgotten children, 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.

To make matters worse, serious global difficulties like the economic crisis are widening disparities in education. Some governments are already missing their commitments and cutting their investments in education. And in tough economic times, parents pull girls out of school first, and girls drop out before boys to support their families.

I believe that it is morally indefensible and strategically short-sighted to ignore these children, these communities and these countries while we are engaged in the biggest push to reduce global poverty the world has ever seen.

In fact, I believe it is precisely on these ignored, forgotten children that we must refocus our efforts as we approach 2015 and the deadline for meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

At a recent retreat, the UN Secretary General made clear yet again his belief that children – especially girls and women -- are not just part of the Millennium Development Goals, they are at the very heart of all the MDGs.

This presents us all with a huge opportunity we must seize – and a huge responsibility we must meet -- as we approach 2015 ... not because the MDGs require it, but because it is the right thing to do.

The stakes could not be higher. 72 million children out of school today are counting on us – and more than half of them are girls.

We know that educating girls, especially adolescent girls, creates cascading benefits, producing a ripple effect – or if you’ve been watching YouTube, the Girl Effect.

Girls are not just the victims of inequality – they provide us with a key opportunity to build a more equitable society. When we invest in their education, we are investing in the future.

Educated girls are less likely to marry or have children early; they are better able to protect themselves from HIV and AIDS, from sexual exploitation and abuse.

Educated women are far less likely to die in childbirth and far more likely to have healthy babies who survive their infancy and thrive.

Every year of secondary education a girl or woman can attain will greatly increase her future income – sometimes by as much as 15% -- greatly raising her family’s standard of living.

And educated girls and women are far more likely to send their own children to school, launching a virtuous cycle that persists, generation after generation.

In fact, 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. It is the only way to sustain the gains we make.

And in recent days we’ve seen real progress at the policy and lawmaking level.

Just this week, the Lesotho legislature made free education the law of the land – a very important victory for disadvantaged children. The same thing is happening in Swaziland, and hopefully other countries will follow suit.

Kenya, Zambia and South Africa are all working to establish re-entry points for girls who have been pregnant to return to school.

In Jamaica, the government is investing in girls ... by investing in boys – with policies aimed at reducing the violence in school that is one of the main reasons girls leave school.

UNGEI is helping to steer private and international donors to invest in and encourage similar policies by other governments.

But, let us remember: education is the lever that moves everything forward, but education alone does not equal empowerment.

The truth is, we have seen evidence in Bangladesh, Madagascar and Brazil that 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.

So, the time has come for us to accelerate our efforts – and to look beyond gender parity to a broader agenda. That is what we are here to do, and I applaud the UNGEI conference for undertaking this rigorous and unflinching review of our successes and our failures, including empowerment as well as education.

Already, UNGEI is helping girls to empower themselves by building social support networks that can help them to stay in school and succeed, and by encouraging them to take a more active role on the public issues that affect their futures.

As my daughters would say: You go, girls!

So let me leave you not with a thought about policy, but with a moment of imagination. Let’s imagine a world – and I know it won’t be soon – in which UNGEI has succeeded. A world in which we don’t have to hold special meetings about girls’ education, because it’s a given ... When we don’t have to push governments to add girls to the agenda because they are no longer an afterthought in officials’ minds nor an appendix in their policy memos.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful? In other words, UNGEI will be fully successful ... when it is no longer necessary. So, while I know we are all enjoying this and other meetings of UNGEI, let’s all work as hard as we can, together, to put UNGEI out of work. Let’s make our leap of imagination real.

Thank you.

Press release on the conference

For more information visit http://www.ungei.org/




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