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Fight poverty, invest in girls: Smart choice will yield profound economic and social returns

©UNESCO/R.Manowalailao

03.05.2011

Bangkok, 29 April 2011 – If we are serious about making a real, positive change to society, we need to make a firm commitment to a long-term investment in girls’ and women’s education.

 

This potential investment offers high returns, including accelerated social and economic progress, and the unique power to break the cycle of poverty. A successful educational process will afford, women and men, girls and boys, the same entitlements to all aspects of human development, including economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights; the same level of respect; the same opportunities to make choices; and the same level of power to shape the outcomes of these choices.

This week we will mark Global Action Week (2-8 May), an annual event commemorated worldwide to highlight the importance of Education for All. Let’s use this important occasion to take a closer look at this year’s theme: Gender Equality in Education. Education leads to profound life-changing choices. However, in this advanced age of the 21st Century, over 39 million girls in the Asia-Pacific region, who do not have access to a primary-level education, are still denied this fundamental human right.

Inequality in education cripples the lives of millions of girls and women around the world. While the rights of women have made significant progress, women are still second-rate citizens in too many countries today. According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) statistics, women perform 66 per cent of the world’s work; help to produce 50 per cent of global food output; but earn less than 10 per cent of the global income and own just one per cent of the global property stock.

Although the gender gap in education has narrowed over the past decade, girls are still at a disadvantage, particularly in their access to upper secondary education. Women in South Asia, for example have only half as many years of education as their male counterparts, and female enrolment rates at the upper secondary level are two-thirds of those of males.

Illiteracy does not look good on a work resume. Yet, the latest United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) statistics show that in South and West Asia, on average, only one in two women could read and write. In stark contrast, approximately seven out of ten men can do so. In East-Asia and the Pacific, a staggering 74.5 million women are illiterate, representing 71 per cent of total 105 million adults.

These issues go to the heart of UNESCO’s mission; promoting a quality education for all, including women and girls. Education is critical to laying the foundations for gender equality and the empowerment of women. This includes supporting quality education from early childhood education, through to primary and secondary levels and up to tertiary and vocational training.


Achieving equality in primary and secondary education is critical to overcoming development challenges and structural discrimination. However, equality goes beyond the enrolment of the equivalent number of boys and girls. True equality must include the education process and its outcomes. It must improve on three axes:  curriculum; the learning and physical environment; and the quantity and quality of teachers.

Still today, in many developing countries, the fate of most women’s prospects lies in getting married, procreating when still very young, and then tending to their families.
This starts at adolescence when many girls are busy looking after their siblings, cooking, cleaning, and doing mundane household chores, while their chances of going to school, or receiving medical care, are much lower than their male counterparts.

Adolescence is a critical stage; if a girl pursues the course dictated by poverty, she will be obliged to abandon her schooling and she will almost certainly get married at an early age or become pregnant. The depressing statistics show that in developing countries, an estimated 25 to 50 per cent of adolescent girls are mothers before they reach the age of 18.

It is depressing because, as an uneducated mother lacking life  and labour skills, this girl will be less likely to work or earn an income, less likely to stand up for her rights, and less likely to have an influence in the household and in public life. Moreover, she will be more vulnerable to sexual violence and HIV infection.

Every year, according to UNFPA, 14 million adolescent girls give birth. This is the root to the astounding fact that the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 result from complications from pregnancy. Adolescent girls are also two to five times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than women in their twenties, and their babies are 1.5 times more likely to die before their first birthday. Each sad story, multiplied by millions of girls, consigns entire communities and nations to chronic poverty and poor health.

There is an alternative, if a girl continues her schooling and learns life skills, she will marry later, have fewer, healthier children, earn a higher salary and be more likely to send her children to school. Investing in girls’ education is the right thing to do. Women represent half the population, “hold up half of the sky”, and should have their rightful share in making the decisions that affects their lives and their countries.

Women and girls are half of the human capital available to decrease poverty and attain development. However, without education they are unable to fully participate in pursuing these targets. Investing in girls’ education is also the intelligent approach as it makes simple economic sense. Nationwide, each additional year of schooling raises average annual gross domestic product growth by 0.37 per cent.

An added year of school increases girls’ eventual wages by 10 per cent, reduces the probability of infant mortality by 10 per cent, and decreases female fertility rates by 10 per cent. Moreover, when girls and women earn income, they reinvest 90 per cent of it in their families, as opposed to 30 to 40 per cent for men. Therefore, an investment in girls’ education is possibly the best investment that can be made in the developing world. Girls are a powerful transformative force and, if given the opportunity, hold the key to a better future.

Let’s use the occasion of Global Action Week to raise the critical need to invest our time, energy, thought and funding in girls’ and women’s education. Let us strive to equally support the realization of the full potential of all of our children; girls, and boys alike. It is about the lives of over one billion women and girls in the Asia-Pacific region and the countless more lives that are affected by them. It is about coming out of poverty. It is about our collective global future.


UNESCO Bangkok Press Release No.2011
29 April 2011