Peng Liyuan and Audrey Azoulay at a special session on Girls’ and Women’s Education in Paris, 2019.
Notwithstanding the progress made in recent years, the Covid-19 pandemic has further widened gender inequalities. International efforts, investment, and innovation must be strengthened to better protect girls’ and women’s rights to equal access to education, advocates Peng Liyuan, the wife of the President of the People's Republic of China and UNESCO Special Envoy for the Advancement of Girls’ and Women’s Education.
1. The education of girls and women is an important component of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In your view, what role does women’s education play in poverty reduction, economic growth and sustainable development? Could you give us some specific examples of this and share some good practices?
The eradication of poverty and the realization of gender equality are ideals shared by all mankind, and an aspiration shared by women all over the world. The access to equitable and quality education ensures that women are able to draw the power of self-reliance from knowledge and skills. This will help them to lift themselves out of poverty and to embrace a happy life. In addition, they would be in a position to utilize this power to make contributions to society, and to pass it on to empower future generations – thus stopping the intergenerational transmission of poverty.
I have visited many countries and talked to people from all walks of life. I have observed many women lift themselves out of poverty and change their fate through education. I would like to share with you some of China’s experiences and practices in this regard. Through continuous endeavour, China has achieved the goal of eliminating absolute poverty. We have always stressed that for poverty alleviation, we must first provide knowledge and skills. The development of education is a very important measure to achieve this.
China considers the education of girls and women from poor families a top priority, and seeks to safeguard girls’ right to education with a host of measures. These include building schools, exempting girls from tuition and miscellaneous fees, and offering them grants and nutritious meals. In addition, we have introduced various skills training programmes for women – which take regional characteristics and the local needs of women into account and help them increase their income.
Our Spring Bud Project is a public welfare programme aiming to improve the education of girls from poor families. Over the past three decades, more than 3 million girls have completed their schooling and fulfilled their dreams through this programme. In China’s Guizhou Province, local governments introduced a programme called “The Beautiful” that offers handicraft training to women. More than 500,000 women have started to work from home as a result – making and selling embroidery, batik, and woven products. They are creating new lives for themselves, using their skilful hands.
Today, 435 million women in the world still live in poverty, and a marked gender inequality in education still remains. We should be even more determined to promote girls’ and women’s education, and work together to ensure that more of them are able to receive a good education. This would contribute to the attainment of the SDGs.
2. Covid-19 has led to increased inequalities in global education and an unprecedented disruption to education. More than ninety-one per cent of students around the world have been affected by the suspension of classes. According to UNESCO, 11 million girls might not be able to continue their studies. Before the pandemic, there were already 130 million girls out of school around the world. In your view, how should we respond to the serious challenges facing the education of girls?
Girls and women are among the groups most vulnerable to crises. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, I have been following the challenges of health and education faced by girls and women around the world. I am deeply concerned that so many girls cannot return to school. At this unusual time, we should give them more attention and offer them practical help.
From the beginning of the pandemic, UNESCO has taken positive action to safeguard the right to education of girls – such as integrating global online educational resources, compiling the Building Back Equal: Girls Back to School Guide, and publishing thematic reports. Governments all over the world have also worked hard to ensure that children – girls in particular – continue to take lessons taught online or broadcast via radio and television.
In China, while doing a good job on our pandemic response, we have made every effort to protect the physical and mental health of hundreds of millions of students. We introduced online education for nearly 300 million learners, including girls, during school closures and have worked to resume classes so that children can safely return to school.
While Covid-19 continues to spread across the world, it is our shared wish that no girl is left behind because of the pandemic. The first thing we need, therefore, is collaboration. As the Chinese saying goes, when people work with one mind, even Mountain Tai can be moved. As long as we stand in solidarity and work together, every problem is surmountable. Second, we need to invest more in the education of girls during the pandemic, and make greater efforts to promote it. Third, we need to explore innovation, use new methods and adopt new technologies to address new problems – so that high-quality educational resources can be offered to more girls, and they can continue their education in flexible and diverse ways.
3. In 2019, UNESCO launched the Futures of Education initiative which looks at 2050 and beyond, and seeks to understand how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet. In your view, how should the education of the future help people improve their capacity to promote sustainable development and build a better world?
The Futures of Education initiative, launched by UNESCO, pools global wisdom to think about the future of education, which is of great significance. The education of the future should accompany everyone throughout their life, be equally accessible to everyone, suit everyone, and be more open and flexible.
I believe the education of the future should focus on helping people to improve their abilities in three key areas. First, the ability to live in harmony with nature – humans and nature constitute the community of life. In the face of challenges like climate change and the deterioration of the environment, education is essential to enable us to understand and respect nature, so that production models and lifestyles that are conducive to sustainable development can be fostered. People will then take the initiative to adapt themselves to protect nature and look after the Earth, the only home shared by all mankind.
Education is essential to enable us to understand and respect nature
Second, the education of the future must focus on the ability to live in harmony with people from different countries and cultures. Different histories, national conditions, ethnic groups, and customs have given birth to many different civilizations and created a world rich in diversity. Through education, we can teach future generations about the cultures of other countries and nations, so that they appreciate the diversity of civilizations, and respect other people’s choices of development paths and lifestyles, while upholding their own cultural traditions and coexisting in harmony.
Third, the education of the future should impart the ability to learn, innovate, and apply new technologies. Given the explosion of knowledge and technologies, future education should encourage people to think innovatively and pursue lifelong learning. Digital education should be boosted, and people trained to use the internet, big data, artificial intelligence, and other cutting-edge technologies to deal better with the changes in our world.
Through education, we can teach future generations to appreciate the diversity of civilizations
I’m convinced that together, we will make tomorrow’s world a better place through education.
4. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the World Conference on Women in 1995 laid a solid foundation for promoting gender equality and protecting women’s rights and interests, giving a strong impetus to women’s development around the world. Girls’ and women’s education is an important way to promote gender equality and protect women’s rights and interests. Looking into the future, how do you think we can better promote the education of girls and women and contribute to building a community with a shared future for mankind?
Living in one and the same global village, humanity is evolving into an interlinked community with a shared future. Women have the power to promote the development of human civilization and create a better future for mankind. Education for girls and women can awaken, enhance and fully unleash this wonderful power. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action have driven home the idea of gender equality and women’s empowerment; exerted a far-reaching influence on the development of women worldwide, and greatly stimulated the development of education for girls and women.
It is heartening to see that over the past twenty-plus years, countries have been working to promote gender equality in education and safeguarding the right of girls and women to education. Positive progress has been made in women’s education across the world.
The development of girls’ and women’s education could not have happened without three conditions: the leading role played by UNESCO and other international organizations; the firm, enduring commitment of the international community to achieving gender equality, and the enabling environment jointly created by society, families, and community schools.
I hope that governments, and more and more international organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and public-minded people will take the initiative to work together; uphold the vision of a community with a shared future for mankind; enhance solidarity and co-operation; increase input; develop more targeted and effective policies and action plans, and create a better global network for the education of girls and women. When education is used to empower women and greater progress is made to promote it, we will be able to work at full throttle to build a community with a shared future for mankind.
5. The awarding of the 2021 UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education ushered in the second phase of co-operation between China and UNESCO on the prize. In your view, what are the most remarkable achievements and impact of the first phase of co-operation? What more can the international community do to continue supporting these laureates?
In 2015, UNESCO and China jointly established the prize, which honours outstanding contributions made by individuals, institutions and organizations to advance girls’ and women’s education. Intended to demonstrate the importance of education in changing the destiny of girls and women, and to inspire more people to be involved in the cause, the prize has been playing a positive role in recent years.
In the first phase, the prize was awarded to projects of ten organizations from ten countries, with one other country receiving a special nomination. The themes of these projects ranged from early childhood education to higher education, covering all dimensions of women’s development. They safeguarded women’s right to education, helped them acquire knowledge and skills, and worked to eliminate gender discrimination. The prizes have provided women with the confidence and ability to change their destinies and pursue their dreams, benefiting millions of girls and women. They have also inspired more people to engage in this noble cause.
Promoting this important cause today will deliver benefits to future generations. China will continue to work with UNESCO to make the second phase of the collaboration on the prize a success. This is a new starting point. I hope that more countries, institutions, and people will join in. I also expect to see that the laureates will strengthen exchanges and co-operation, and share their good practices and successful experiences in various ways. More importantly, I want to see the international community paying more attention to and supporting the education of girls and women, because they were influenced by the prize. Their stories deserve to be read and heard, and they deserve to be recognized and encouraged.
As UNESCO Special Envoy for the Advancement of Girls’ and Women’s Education, I am ready to further fulfil my responsibility and join hands with every one of you to make sure that more girls and women are loved, confident, and empowered.
About the UNESCO Courier:
Of all the journals published by the United Nations and its specialised institutions, The UNESCO Courier has always occupied first place for the number of its readers and the range of its audience, said the American journalist Sandy Koffler, the Courier's founder and first editor-in-chief, in 1988. The magazine has changed a great deal over the years, both in content and in form. But it pursues its original mission: promote UNESCO’s ideals, maintain a platform for the dialogue between cultures and provide a forum for international debate.
Peng Liyuan: “Together, we will make tomorrow’s world a better place through education”, The UNESCO Courier, 2021-5
Peng Liyuan: “The equality of opportunity is fundamental”, The UNESCO Courier, April-June 2017
Subscribe to The UNESCO Courier for thought-provoking articles on contemporary issues. The digital version is completely free.
Follow The UNESCO Courier on: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or WeChat account: UNESCOcourier.