"We must all become education champions for girls and women’s leadership”

On 7 January, in Istanbul, Turkey, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova was designated as the first KOÇ-KAM Semahat Arsel Distinguished Fellow at Koç University. On this occasion, she gave a keynote lecture on the theme “Empowering Women Leadership and Education.”

The event took place in the presence of the Chair of the Vehbi Koç Foundation, Semahat Arsel, the President of the University, Umran Inan, the Director of the KOC-KAM Centre for Gender Studies, Professor Çiğdem Kağıtçıbaşı, as well as HE Minister Fatma Sahin and the Honourable Mayor of Sisli, before a packed room.

“I thank Ms Semahat Arsel and Koç University for this distinction, which I accept on behalf of UNESCO, as a sign of the goals we seek to achieve together,” said the Director-General.

Since 2013, UNESCO and Koç University have developed a strong partnership for women’s empowerment and gender equality. This takes the shape of work to develop training modules for an Executive Training Course intended for the senior management teams of private sector companies -- to sensitize and inform senior management of companies about the benefits of diversity and especially gender equality.

Stating that leadership is not a gift of nature but something to be nurtured and promoted, the Director-General said that “this starts on the benches of schools and in the laboratories of universities, like this one -- because education is the most powerful breakthrough strategy for human development.”

The Director-General underlined the importance of recognizing and supporting women’s leadership in 2015, as the international community reviews 20 years of action since the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

“Women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace.”

“Empowering girls and women is a transformational force,” she said, underlining that too many girls, in too many countries, are held back from becoming leaders simply because they are girls.

Irina Bokova said that in 2000, the world set ambitious goals to provide education for all by 2015, and there has been tremendous progress in the global campaign Education for All led by UNESCO – but this progress has been uneven and insufficient.

“This is why UNESCO is acting across the world, to support girls and women’s education, acting where needs are most acute,” said the Director-General, giving examples of UNESCO’s action in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia and Africa.

“UNESCO cannot tackle these challenges alone – nor can Governments,” said Irina Bokova, calling for new kinds of ‘soft power’ that bring together Governments and international organizations with the creativity of civil society and the private sector, noting her deep commitment to building new forms innovative forms of partnership for stronger UNESCO action.

“We must do everything to support the right of girls and women to education, to eliminate illiteracy and ignorance,” she said. “This is essential for human rights –- it is the foundation for healthy, inclusive societies – it is a force for sustainable development."

In closing, the Director-General thanked the Koc University for the honour of joining its ranks and looked forward to ever stronger partnership for women's leadership.