Opinion: The road to gender equality is through quality education

08/03/2020
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By Stefania Giannini and Alice Albright

Twenty-five years ago, world leaders from 189 countries signed the Beijing Declaration and launched the Platform for Action, a bold roadmap for women’s equal participation in every facet of society and life.

Today, as we observe International Women’s Day, no single country is on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of gender equality by 2030. Despite hard-won gains over last quarter century, we are still 100 years from closing the gender gap. For girls and women today, that is as good as never.

To be sure, there has been progress: girls’ enrolment rates have doubled in the past 25 years. The global gap between the number of girls and boys in school has narrowed to near or full parity, and in some places, girls now outnumber boys in some levels of education. UNESCO estimates that since 2000 the number of girls not getting any education has dropped substantially from 205 million to 129 million.

But 129 million is an appallingly large number of girls who are being denied their fundamental right to a quality education and to the future that learning unlocks. Moreover, the challenge to girls’ education does not stop when girls get into the classroom. They are up against entrenched social, economic and cultural barriers that mean that for 6 out of 10 girls in low-income countries, primary schooling is the end of their educational road, and barely 1 in 10 will graduate from high school. The odds are worse for the most marginalized: refugees, girls living with disabilities and girls from poor families and rural areas.

Just as appalling is that millions of girls who are in school are not learning the skills they need. In some countries, as few as 2 in 10 girls can read and understand a simple story by the time they finish primary school. Even when girls do go all the way to higher education, they are grossly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the very fields that are shaping the economies and societies of the future.  

This is a sheer waste of talent and potential.

Clearly, we need a profoundly new approach. But this will happen only when leaders and their citizens recognize -- and dismantle – power inequities in their societies that uphold the status quo.

Progress in education is proof that this is possible. When countries make and follow through on concrete commitments to change, they can accelerate the velocity of gender equality progress. About 85% of the developing countries the Global Partnership for Education works with included gender equality in their long-term education plans. That means they are doing more to lower the common barriers to girls’ education: by enrolling and retaining girls, making sure they get good quality learning materials, reducing sexual harassment and violence in and around school, installing proper menstrual hygiene facilities and boosting the number of female teachers who can motivate and relate to girls.

These approaches work. Ethiopia, for example, has made girls’ education a priority in recent years. The result: more girls are going to, staying in and improving their performance in school, and the wide gap between the number of girls and boys who completed primary school has all but disappeared. Kenya has also invested intensively in girl-friendly interventions – especially in more remote areas – and as a result, girls’ grade 1 enrolment has increased, and they are outperforming boys in math. Likewise, Nepal’s efforts have, among other indicators, increased girls’ enrolment in and completion of school in Nepal, even exceeding boys’.

The Beijing Platform for Action recognized that equal access to education is vital if more women are to become agents of change. That’s why we and the organizations we represent are joining the Generation Equality campaign, which is mobilizing people of all ages and genders to reinvigorate the aspirations articulated in Beijing 25 years ago.

An equal generation is an educated generation. We must play our part to ensure that all girls and women everywhere have the knowledge and skills they need to lead the charge and break down the barriers to gender equality for good.

Stefania Giannini is Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO and Alice Albright is the CEO of the Global Partnership for Education.