Education for girls and women and recognition of the importance of women’s empowerment for sustainable development dominated debate as a high-level conference on the theme: “Re-Thinking Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality in 2015 and beyond” held at UNESCO’s Paris Headquarters. The event opened the programme for this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations, with six eminent panellists discussing progress made since the World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, and the challenges that remain to achieve gender equality.
In her opening address UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova recalled the vision that emerged in Beijing, in which each woman and girl could live freely and make her own choices, live without fear of violence, go to school, participate in decision-making, express her will and earn equal pay for equal work. “Twenty years later this vision remains a source of inspiration” she said, describing progress made as “timid”.
“We need to think big again today,” Ms Bokova said. “If we are not bolder and more innovative, the ambitious development agenda that is in the setting will not be achievable.” For the Director-General, education is one of the keys to bring about the necessary changes, which is why UNESCO has made education for girls and women a top priority.
The Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran H.E.Dr Masoumeh Ebtekar, told conference participants that the goals set at Beijing should be revisited in order to advance gender equality more effectively. She urged UNESCO to collect and share successful gender equality initiatives worldwide in a bid to accelerate progress in this domain, which is vital for achieving sustainability.
Ms Laura Chinchilla, former President of Costa Rica, stressed the need for a much more proactive approach on all levels to make gender equality a reality, especially in the political and economic domains. “Let’s be clear,” she said, “the more we empower women in the economy, the more success we will achieve in empowering them in politics and other social areas.”
Ms Tsetska Tsacheva, President of the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria, stressed the link between gender equality, democracy, and sustainable development. “In Bulgaria,” she said “one of the country’s human rights’ priorities is rights for women and girls, including education and empowerment” which was recognized as critical for development and must be included on the post-2015 development agenda.
Gertude Mongella was the Secretary-General of the Fourth International Conference on Women, Beijing 20 years ago. Recalling the energy and enthusiasm that surrounded the event she told the participants that gender equality and empowerment for women “is a revolution, there is no going back […] you cannot say democracy, but without women.”
Ms Nicole Ameline, President of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) stressed the need for governments to link women’s rights to development and to improve their capacities for achieving this – especially in the area of education.
The final panelist, Hynd Ayoubi Idrissi, Professor of law, member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, spoke of the need for international solidarity on this issue and urged government and independent institutions to improve the collection and monitoring of reliable data on respect for women’s rights.