Harvard University puts spotlight on educating girls globally

“We will do justice to the world by promoting girls' education as the single most powerful transformational force to improve lives and societies,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, addressing the Askwith Forum at Harvard's Graduate School of Education on March 31, 2016.

The Forum, organized as part of the ‎University's Advanced Leadership Initiative, brought together faculty, students and fellows from foundations and the private sector, around the theme “Against the Odds: Educating Girls Globally.” 

Hosted by Professor Fernando Reimers, it featured keynote interventions by the Director-General and Dr Sakena Yacoobi, CEO of the Afghan Institute of Learning, and a panel discussion with Professors Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Monica Higgins. 

The Director-General outlined the scale of the challenge, alerting that, on current trends, the most disadvantaged girls in sub-Saharan Africa will only make it to school in 2086 - a violation of human rights and dignity that is also a huge impediment to the development of entire societies, she said. 

Highlighting some of the catalytic benefits of education across generations, she stated that SDG4 on education and SDG5 on gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment had to take centre change to reach progress across the 2030 Sustainable Development agenda. 

“Girls’ education is a moral, development and security imperative. But to carry impact, to be sustainable, education must lead to empowerment,” she said, stressing the importance of placing the focus on adolescent girls to ensure they follow a full secondary education cycle, in line with the commitment made in SDG4  - “a global compact”. 

This calls for new, more holistic approaches that integrate attention to quality, teachers, skills, health, safe learning environments and working with families and communities, to overcome discrimination and prejudice. 

“The face of the SDGs should be a 12-year-old girl who goes to school, receives a quality education, is safe, supported by her family, empowered to make choices, fulfil her potential and contribute to her society,” asserted Ms Bokova. 

She drew attention to the Joint Programme for the Empowerment of Girls and Young Women through Education, launched with UN Women and United Nations Population Fund, as well as of private sector partnerships initiated by UNESCO that harness technology for literacy, learning and livelihoods. 

Education’s power to transform lives was illustrated through Dr Sakena Yacoobi’s passionate testimony, running from the establishment of learning centres for Afghans living in Pakistan’s refugee camps, where “people were hungry for learning,” to underground schools in Afghanistan at the time of the Taliban, to women’s learning centres today that are set up in all the country’s provinces, and from which 20,000 students graduate every year. Her initiatives have reached over 12.5 million people. 

Dr Yacoobi has developed participatory learning methodologies that encompass citizenship, human rights, health education, skills, ICTs and income generation, also involving religious leaders, encouraging critical thinking and delving into culture, poetry and history to build confidence and belonging. 

“We need to empower women and girls and the only solution is through education - to solve the problems of ignorance, poverty and disease, to promote good citizenship and democracy. And we need to change the minds of men, to train them together with women for a prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan.”  

The Director-General also highlighted UNESCO’s work in Afghanistan, including the largest literacy project in the history of the country, supported by the Government of Japan, that has benefited over 600,000 youth and adults.