Gender Issues in Education for Sustainable Development

Gender Issues in Education for Sustainable Development”

Statement by Kul C. Gautam
Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF
at the Parallel Event on Education for Sustainable Future
Organized by UNESCO and the South African Ministry of Education
at the World Summit on Sustainable Development
Johannesburg, 3 September 2002


Most of my fellow panelists have spoken about new perspectives, new actors and new pathways as they relate to higher education. These are obviously very important.
Without sounding a discordant note, I would like to speak to you today not so much about new perspectives but about an age-old problem that continues to dog us stubbornly. The unequal and inadequate access to basic education for girls which is undoubtedly a major impediment to sustainable development.

If poverty eradication is the paramount challenge of sustainable development, basic education, particularly of girls, is unquestionably the surest and fastest way to reach that objective.
An educated girl tends to marry later, is more likely to space her pregnancies, will seek medical care for her child and herself, will give better child care and nutrition, and will ensure that her children attend primary school. These are all important factors in preventing the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Basic education also enhances a woman’s income-generating capacity and emboldens her to claim her rights and those of her children. It gives a young woman a sense of personal empowerment and self-confidence to make decisions that affect her life. Society as a whole benefits from girls’ education.
Because of these multiple benefits, it is widely recognized that investing in quality basic education for girls is among the best investment that any nation can make in sustainable development.

This was recognized twelve years ago, when the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien identified improving access to quality basic education for girls and women as “the most urgent priority”. Two years ago, the Dakar World Education Forum reaffirmed this commitment.
And just four months ago, world leaders meeting at the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Children reaffirmed the Millennium development goal of eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005.

At the Millennium Summit, the Secretary-General of the United Nations reminded us all emphatically that there can be no significant or sustainable transformation in societies – and no substantial or lasting reduction in global poverty – until girls receive the quality basic education they deserve – and take their rightful place as equal partners in development.
To pursue this objective, the Secretary-General launched a UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) in which 13 UN entities, led by UNICEF, have agreed to work together to help governments meet their commitments to ensure a quality education for all girls everywhere.

The emphasis on girls’ education does not imply that boys are being ignored or that there is some kind of preference for girls over boys. It is simply a response to the realities of our world. In fact, emphasis on girls’ education has been shown to be very good for boys, as increase in facilities to expand access and improvement in teaching quality and learning experiences benefits all students.
The benefits of girls’ education ripple through extended families, communities and nations as well as across sectors.

A strategic focus on girls’ education enables us to work more intensively on the links between education and sustainable development. A focus on the barriers that prevent girls from enrolling and completing basic education of good quality, leads us to address some of the most critical problems of sustainable development at the household and community levels.
We can predict that a disproportionate number of girls will be out of school in a household or a community that has the following characteristics:

  • The household or community without access to clean water, which means that girls are trapped in the routine of fetching water for long periods every day and so cannot go to school.
  •  Schools without separate sanitary facilities for boys and girls, that put girls in a difficult and embarrassing situation, prompting them to drop out of school.
  • The village that does not have any community-based early childhood care provision, which means that girls have to stay at home to look after their younger siblings instead of going to school.
  • Communities with scarcity of food resources, in which girls usually have a poor share of available food and so cannot benefit from what schools have to offer even if they attend.
  • Households and communities heavily impacted by HIV/AIDS in which children, especially girls, have to stay at home to care for sick relatives instead of attending school.
  • Communities and households where the need for the child’s labour for income generating activities or for helping with domestic chores is in competition with the need for the child to attend school.

A focus on girls’ education will lead us to such households and communities and set us on a fast track to education for all children, to poverty reduction and sustainable human development.

Deliberate efforts are needed to eliminate all forms of gender bias and discrimination in education systems and schools, in curricula and learning materials, in teaching and in learning processes.
Just as children must be helped to be ready for school, we must make sure that schools are made ready for children. Making schools child-friendly, and especially gender sensitive is an essential reform measure for promoting girls’ education.

This World Summit on Sustainable Development provides us with another opportunity to reaffirm our commitments to the children of the world to achieve the goal of education for all.
And of all areas of education that have been the subject of panel discussions in this parallel event, girls’ education merits the highest priority as the key building bloc for creating a world fit for children – the ultimate objective of sustainable development.