Gender, education and culture: a holistic approach

04 - Quality Education
05 - Gender Equality

“The COVID-19 pandemic could roll back the gains made in recent decades on girls’ education or even threaten future progress”


From 8 to 19 June, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School held the 2020 Global Institute for Human Rights. Over these two-weeks, leaders and human rights practitioners, including representatives from the United Nations, the World Bank, and important stakeholders from the private sector, came together to engage in an extraordinary conversation on cross-pollinating ideas and creating cross-cultural dialogue at the cusp of great global change.

On Wednesday, 17 June, Ms Saniye Gülser Corat, UNESCO’s Director for Gender Equality, was invited to be the speaker at a two-part webinar on the following themes:

Women’s right to education during COVID-19

The first part was aimed at explaining UNESCO’s work on the right to inclusive education for women and girls in a time of crisis. In the past few years, UNESCO has become an influential actor in international efforts towards the ethical development of frontier technologies. These technologies play an important role in shaping the future, especially at a time when society is shifting towards a more digital world. However, technology’s great potential might come with destructive consequences, such as the reproduction of gender stereotypes. This is why the integration of gender dimensions is an important part of UNESCO’s work to develop a normative instrument on the ethics of artificial intelligence, as well as ensuring girls’ and women’s right to inclusive education in a time of crisis.

Ms Corat explained that the COVID-19 pandemic could roll back the gains made in recent decades on girls’ education or even threaten future progress. This crisis, and its associated closures and lockdowns have led to specific risks for women and girls, such as exacerbated burden of unpaid care on women and girls, reduced time for learning; and the potential widening of gender digital skills divides. “The world cannot afford cuts to education spending, especially when we have an unprecedented opportunity to capitalize on innovation,” said Ms Corat. For this reason, UNESCO responds to the crisis through three main types of action:

  1. leading worldwide dialogue by bringing together government, private sector and civil society partners in a Global Coalition;
  2. providing customized support and expertise based on countries’ needs and requests; and
  3. generating knowledge.

Now is the time not only to defend and advance the right to education, but also to rethink how it is envisioned and delivered, on fairer and more inclusive grounds.

Saniye Gülser Corat

When law and culture collide

The second part of the webinar, entitled “when law and culture collide”, intended to promote a conversation on how culture and rights can sometimes be conflictual. In her speech, Ms Corat named some examples of this dichotomy, such as female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM) and forced or early marriage, and emphasized that, despite considered by many as ‘cultural’ practices, they are found in different parts of the world.

These practices are prohibited in several international conventions and agreements; however, to effectively address this violation of human rights, we need more than a universal approach. For Ms Corat, “criminalizing a practice such FGM alone, without addressing social norms and promoting behavioural change, can push the practice underground, exposing girls to further risk”. The most effective interventions are those that take social dynamics into account, through a cross-sectoral approach that incorporates changes in attitudes, behavior and culture. This type of transformative work requires solid interdisciplinary action, and UNESCO, having a wide mandate, is in an excellent position to tackle these issues, some of our initiatives include:

  1. building partnerships to eradicate harmful practices, such as the joint European Union-UN ‘Spotlight’ initiative aimed at ending violence against women and girls;
  2. producing knowledge production, for example the publication entitled International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education, which includes data on FGM/C and supports learners’ empowerment; and
  3. raise awareness on harmful practices and violence against women and girls.

It is important to remember that Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5) contains a specific target aimed at eliminating these practices, and therefore constitutes a necessary step to build a more equal and just society.



Following Ms Corat’s presentation, there was a lively debate with the 100 participants that attended the webinar. The questions raised touched upon different subjects, such as UNESCO’s work on cultural education, and the power of storytelling in fostering women’s empowerment.  UNESCO’s Division for Gender Equality would like to express my special thanks to Professor Rangita de Silva de Alwis, who organized and chaired the webinar.