• Wednesday, November 25, 2015
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Special CSW55 – “Education Must Reach the Marginalised”

    UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova Credit:UN Photo/Mark Garten

    Myurvet S. Mehmed interviews IRINA BOKOVA, Director-General of UNESCO

    UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25, 2011 (IPS) – Although more girls are enrolling in school – notably in countries with the greatest gender gaps like Chad, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen – two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are still women.

    This has very real consequences for every aspect of life. For example, a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five, says Irina Bokova, director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

    Speaking with IPS on the occasion of the historic launch of UN Women Thursday, Bokova stressed that issues surrounding women’s and children’s education impact nearly all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), from improved health and prevention of HIV/AIDS to higher income.

    Excerpts from the interview follow.

    Q: What are UNESCO’s global priorities in helping U.N. member states achieve education for all by 2015, the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS)? And do you think this is achievable?

    A: As our Global Monitoring Report being released on Mar. 1 shows, there has been impressive progress in the past decade. An additional 52 million children enrolled in primary school. The number of children out of school was halved in South and West Asia. A number of countries that started the decade with large gender gaps have achieved gender parity in primary education.

    These are achievements that are the result of strong political commitment, sustained domestic spending on education and policies that have made education more accessible. But as our annual report warns, this progress is slowing.

    In our programmes, we place a special focus on improving teacher recruitment and training policies because 1.9 million teachers are needed just to reach universal primary education by 2015; on literacy because close to 800 million adults are illiterate, on skills for the world of work and on helping governments manage their education systems.

    The greatest challenge education systems face is to reach the marginalised, to make sure that students acquire relevant knowledge and skills to cope in today’s globalised world, together with values and attitudes that promote dialogue, responsible citizenship and peace.

    Q: Do you think that a quality education for girls can help strengthen the international agenda on development and peace?

    A: The education of girls and women is indeed the key to development and peace. The fact that two-thirds of illiterate adults are women reflects the injustice of unequal access to education. Societies pay a heavy price for this.

    A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 1.8 million children’s lives could have been saved in 2008 of their mothers had at least secondary education. Women with post-primary education are five times more likely than illiterate women to be knowledgeable about HIV and AIDS prevention.

    Education gives a voice, encourages political participation, and increases opportunities on the labour market. There can be no equitable and just society without achieving gender equality, and this begins with education.

    Q: What are the real challenges of getting girls into schools? Are these due to political, financial, social or cultural problems?

    A: You have to start early. Being born a girl in many countries can still mean exclusion from education. Poverty is a number one obstacle. But there are others of a more social and cultural nature.

    Living in a remote area, belonging to an indigenous community, speaking a minority language, carrying a disability all put girls at even greater risk of exclusion. These obstacles are not immovable and experience proves it. From Bangladesh to Senegal, many countries starting from a low base have reached gender parity in primary education.

    The first step is to abolish school fees and make sure that there are no hidden costs such as books or uniforms that prevent girls from going to school. Financial subsidies to the poorest families, stipend and scholarship programmes are all policies that have enabled girls to successfully complete their schooling. Programs targeting the very young – under age six – are particularly effective in combating disadvantage.

    Recruiting and training female teachers has an impact on school performance, especially in low-income countries. Where we really must put more concerted effort is at the secondary level because girls are more likely to drop out than boys for a whole set of reasons. Cost of schooling is one, but there are also concerns about safety, hygiene and long distances to and from school. Finally, we have to build a gender-sensitive culture in schools: this means breaking stereotypes, and encouraging girls to have aspirations and pursue them.

    Q: Lack of education is clearly one of the hidden costs of conflict and violence.

    A: Our report being released on Mar. 1 documents the devastating consequences of armed conflict on education. The alarming situation demands a strong and concerted global response. We must address failures of protection through better monitoring and reporting of attacks targeting education systems and sanctioning these egregious violations of human rights.

    This report puts the spotlight on misplaced priorities. Twenty-one developing countries are currently spending more on arms than on primary schools. If they were to cut military spending, they could put an additional 9.5 million children in school.

    Finally, our role as an international community is to unlock education’s potential to nurture peace, to support the development of inclusive education systems that reach out to all groups and that teach human rights and civic values. This is the path to reconciliation and peace.

    Q: Have UNESCO’s priorities been affected by a decline in financial contributions caused by the global economic crisis?

    A: The financial and economic crisis puts all international organisations before the challenge of reforming deeply and swiftly. I was elected to the post of director-general in the midst of the crisis. Reform is the mainstay of my agenda – a reform that makes us more efficient, more visible and more effective. We have to do more with less – this is the reality.

    I am doing this through streamlining a number of our programmes to sharpen their focus, by strengthening our network of field offices, by cutting administrative costs, by improving information and knowledge management.

    UNESCO has a unique mandate. I have spoken above about our commitment to education and to advancing gender equality. But we are the United Nations agency dealing with the protection of cultural heritage, with promoting freedom of expression, with advancing scientific cooperation.

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