Tokyo: A Society where Women Shine starts with education

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UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, and First Lady Akie Abe
© UNESCO/ Cynthia Guttman
28 August 2015

Making women shine starts early by ensuring quality education for all girls and second chances for those who miss out, said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, at a high-level panel discussion on the opening day of the World Assembly for Women, hosted by the Government of Japan in Tokyo, on 28-29 August.

Opening the event, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reasserted his administration’s priority to “creating a society where women shine” and reviewed progress since the first edition of the WAW in 2014.

“Abenomics is ‘womenomics’. Over the last two and a half years, I have consistently promoted the dynamic engagement of women. Over this time, some million women have newly entered the labour market,  while the number of female corporate board members has also increased by roughly 30 per cent. ”

On the opening day of the Assembly, the Japanese Diet adopted a bill on the Promotion of Women’s Participation and Advancement in the Workplace that will oblige companies to draw up action plans with targets for hiring women and appointing them to executive positions. The Prime Minister said that corporate culture has to change, towards sharing responsibility for household chores and child rearing, and striking a sound work-life balance. 

Turning to the international stage, the Prime Minister said that the promotion of women’s participation is now a principle underpinning Japan’s official development assistance. With Japan assuming the G7 presidency in 2016, the Prime Minister intends to push the women’s empowerment agenda forward vigorously at the Ise-Shima Summit.  He noted the allocation of more than 42 billion yen over the next three years towards quality education for girls and women.

In the panel discussion on girls’ education, the Director-General insisted that to “eradicate extreme poverty, the overarching goal of the post-2015 agenda, we have to start with education and place girls – especially adolescent girls must be at the centre.” 

Recalling that on current trends the poorest girls in Africa would not have access to primary education until 2086, she said that action is a matter of human rights and human dignity, and a pre-requisite for improving health, delaying child marriage, driving economic growth and strengthening environmental resilience.

The fact that 250 million young people are leaving school without basic literacy and numeracy skills and 756 million adults are illiterate remains too much of a “forgotten problem,” said the Director-General.

“We have to give girls second chances. If we were to put a face on what our agenda means, it is that of a 12-year old girl who is in school and learning in a safe environment, not subjected to violence, not being taken into early marriage and supported by her family and community.”

All participants on the panel cited the catalytic impact of girls’ education on health, economic growth and sustainable development, urging a focus on adolescent girls. First Lady Akie Abe said that schools should encourage female high school students to be proactive and think for themselves, but that society also has to change to integrate a rising generation of young women who are studying hard, going to university and working.

In a video message, the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama referred to the U.S Government’s “Let Girls Learn” programme that aims to help adolescent girls worldwide go to school and contribute to their family community and nation.

Ms Rula Ghani, the First Lady of Afghanistan, said that conflict had destroyed a once-advanced education system, with women and children paying the highest price for it. She underscored the need to regain mutual respect and to act on some of the greatest obstacles to girls’ education: distance from school, dearth of female teachers, lack of sanitation that often  leads to drop out at puberty.

The First Lady of Kenya Margaret Kenyatta reported that the increased participation of girls in school yielded the highest return of all development investments in Kenya. Cherie Blair, chancellor of the Asian University for Women and head of a foundation carrying her name, insisted on the impact of training schemes for women’s economic empowerment.

In a keynote speech, Africa’s first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, called on everyone “to make the commitment to denounce the subordination of the girl child,” because this will lead to increased confidence, self-esteem and autonomy for women. The Nobel peace laureate said that a society where women shine must forcefully tackle sexual violence and exclusion across the board, from national parliament, access to health, education and finance.”

UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka recalled that 2015 is a momentous year and urged significant increases in gender equality investment.

“The post-2015 agenda is about leaving no one behind,” she said. “This calls for action across the board, from affordable child care, quality education, access to justice, protection from sexual violence and a full-fledged role in peacekeeping and peace building.”

And noting that Prime Minister Abe is one of the ten male heads of State and Government chosen to champion UN Women’s HeforShe campaign, she emphasized the role of men in achieving gender equality.

The World Assembly for Women comprises a wide range of sessions covering work-life management, peace building, innovation, disaster risk reduction, partnerships and engaging men in reforms for gender equality. This year’s edition gathers participants from some 40 countries and  eight international organizations.