Skills development essential for women’s empowerment

On 6 March 2015, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, participated in a high level panel discussion on “quality education skills development as tools for empowerment of women and girls”, held within the framework of the General Assembly high level thematic debate on “Achieving Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women for a Transformative Post -2015 Development Agenda.” at United Nations’ Headquarters in New York.

This debate focused on women’s economic and political empowerment and their access to quality education. The event took place with the participation of H.E. Mr. Sam Kahamba Kutesa, President of the General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and featured statements by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN-Women Executive Director, President Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic of Croatia, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, and the Rt Hon. Michaëlle Jean, Secretary-General of La Francophonie.

The Director-General joined the President of Croatia Ms Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Mr Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Ms Yoko Hayashi, Chair of the CEDAW Committee, Ms Geeta Gupta, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in a fruitful discussion on how to overcome the multiple barriers for ensuring girls' and women's access to quality education.

The Director-General highlighted that to shape a successful future agenda, we must be clear on where we stand today. “There has been progress across the world, but we are not there yet,” she declared. “There are still 31 million girls who should be in school but are not, an even higher number out of secondary and there remain still 493 million illiterate women.”

The Director-General offered four lessons to be drawn from these facts. The first is that adolescent girls are most vulnerable to poverty, discrimination, social pressures, and the impact of conflicts. “We must target this ‘make or break’ transition, as it affects girls through life,” she declared. The second is to connect the dots through joined-up policies, which involve working with not only education but also health, labour  and finance ministries. She noted that this is the premise of the new Joint Programme for Empowering Adolescent Girls and Young Women through Education, to be launched on Tuesday 10 March with UN Women, UNFPA and the World Bank. The third lesson the Director-General underlined was to widen the angle beyond schools, to informal spaces such as the workplace, community learning centres, and even technical and vocational training. “This is why UNESCO advocates for lifelong learning in the post-2015 agenda,” she said. The final lesson is to harness all learning multipliers starting with new information and communication technologies – to reach the unreached, to improve the quality of teaching. “This was the message sent last week during UNESCO’s Mobile Learning Week and the Broadband Commission for Digital Development,” she noted.

During the discussion, the Director-General highlighted some of UNESCO’s work in the area, including the Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education, launched in 2011 by UNESCO which focuses on girls’ secondary education and women’s literacy.

“In Senegal, a literacy and skills training project has benefited some 6500 girls and women. In Ethiopia and Tanzania, we have supported girls in the transition to secondary education. Communities, teachers and schools worked together to establish a gender-responsive and inclusive learning environment,” said the Director-General.

The panel’s participants called for increased attention to adolescent girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health and training, for effectively implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, for adopting affirmative action when needed. They further emphasized the different multi-sectoral approaches that tackle barriers to girls’ access to quality education.

During the discussion with the Member States, delegates highlighted that gender equality and the empowerment of women continue to be the highest priority for the international community. All members of the UN development system are to apply a gender lens across the various thematic areas they work on and mainstream gender in all their policies and programmes.  For instance, during the ebola crisis, applying a gender lens to its aftermath has demonstrated that women have been disproportionately affected and need special measures. 

Delegations strongly supported the inclusion of a stand-alone goal on gender equality in the post-2015 development agenda and advocated for mainstreaming of gender equality perspectives in all other goals, targets and indicators as well as the integration of gender in the means of implementation.