By Dr Nitya Rao, The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) C0-Chair
It is heartening that the Nobel Committee has awarded the 2011 Peace Prize to three women who have tirelessly campaigned for peace and democracy. These new laureates join a small group of just 15 women in the 110-year history of the prize. One of the winners, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, virtually rebuilt her country following 14 years of civil war. During the war, teachers fled and an entire generation missed out on an education. President Sirleaf began her programme of reconstruction by introducing free schooling, and since 2005 the enrolment of girls has increased by 40 per cent. She also introduced tougher anti-rape laws to protect women from sexual crimes. Throughout her work, her priority has been to empower women in all areas of life.
For girls and women, education is a key building block in the process of empowerment. Along with equal economic opportunities and use of productive assets, equal representation in decision-making bodies, and freedom from drudgery, violence and coercion, it is an essential ingredient in achieving gender equality. Over the last year, UNGEI has worked to promote a focus on gender equality in educational processes. Even more importantly, it has advocated for positive policy changes at all levels by strengthening effective multi-stakeholder partnerships. One such partnership, with the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE), resulted in the 2010 publication of Gender, Equality and Education: A report card on South Asia. The report concludes that achieving gender equality requires a multi-pronged approach: In addition to increasing girls’ enrolment, retention and achievement in school, it is also necessary to establish responsive and relevant educational processes that enable girls and women to use their abilities and rights to make strategic life choices.
The case of Sri Lanka, which the Report Card examines in the context of the challenges posed by post-conflict reconstruction, shows that a little education is not enough. To ensure that children at all levels have access to high-quality education – as is the aim of the country’s policy of free education for all children up to university – expenditures on education must be sustained over a long period of time. In Bangladesh, where the gender gap now favours girls, huge strides have been made towards universal school enrolment. Yet poor quality continues to hamper progress in education. The situation is similar in India, despite that country’s commitment to education as a right for all children. Quality education is not cheap – but its absence denies many girls their only opportunity to develop basic skills and secure their rights. Because of cultural and ideological factors relating to honour, reputation and marriage prospects, girls may be less able than boys to take advantage of alternative learning opportunities, such as apprenticeship or other vocational training, which may involve staying away from home for considerable periods of time. Threats to the safety and security of both children and teachers may also pose a serious challenge, as demonstrated by the cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
ASPBAE launched the Report Card at public events in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The publication has sparked discussion in the local media as well as among academics, civil society actors and policymakers. In Nepal – which is exceptional in South Asia in that its new constitution provides for the proportional representation of women in Parliament – the Minister of Education and four members of the Constituent Assembly attended the launch and called for the implementation of a 12-point proposal put forward by the All Party Network for Girls’ Education, thereby acknowledging the need for changes in educational policies and implementation in order to meet gender equality goals. At the Pakistan launch, representatives of civil society, along with the Department of Social Welfare and the National Commission for Human Development, pressed the Government to provide high-quality education for girls and women. The report has now been translated into Urdu and has been widely distributed in four provinces of the country – suggesting that regional and sub-regional interventions and advocacy can help spur changes at the national and local levels.
The critical potential of the Report Card for awareness raising and advocacy, as well as the insights to be gleaned from its analysis, have inspired similar exercises in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Because the local context is pivotal in shaping and defining both social norms and the educational agenda, indicators are being discussed and specified locally in each case. The enthusiasm generated by this exercise and the commitment to move it forward leave us with some hope as we move closer to 2015. Gender equality is ultimately not about merely getting girls into school – it is about social change, peace, justice, mutual respect and above all recognition of equal rights.