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Irina Bokova: Empowering girls through Education

Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO explains how we must overcome inequality and injustice to ensure girls' educational journey.

The global goals that have just been adopted at the historic United Nations Summit pledge to transform our world by leaving no one behind.

Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO.

This universal, rights-based agenda can only be realised if gender equality becomes the norm in every society. This ambition starts by tackling inequalities at the root and by investing in the most powerful transformational force that exists to empower girls and women – a quality education.

The fourth Sustainable Development Goal spells out this ambition, guided by the Incheon Declaration that was adopted at the World Education Forum in May 2015, co-convened by UNESCO with six UN partners. It promises to ensure that all children pursue 12 years of quality, free and publicly funded education – the first time the world has signed up to such a comprehensive goal.

Our starting point is the fact that over 60 million girls are out of school today and more than half of them are adolescents. Only 38 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in secondary education. We have to address all the obstacles that prevent girls from learning – family poverty, discriminatory laws, social prejudice, low expectations, and schools that simply are not safe for girls. The picture is worse in situations of emergency and crisis, where girls are often the first targets of violence and extremism. But across the board, in every society, inequality prevails in different ways.

The principle of our approach must be zero tolerance for violence and discrimination. We estimate that 246 million girls and boys are harassed and abused in and around school every year. To raise awareness and counter this violation of human dignity, we are working with UN Women and other partners to develop global guidance on school-related gender-based violence that will be issued this autumn. UNESCO’s Executive Board approved a resolution on this subject in April this year, the first normative document of its kind in the United Nations system.

To overcome inequality and injustice, we need to act on all factors that marginalise girls and hijack their educational journey

To overcome inequality and injustice, we need to act on all factors that marginalise girls and hijack their educational journey. From school safety and gender sensitive teaching and curricula through to community awareness raising and advocacy, the range of interventions must span the social and political spectrum in order to succeed.

This is why we have joined forces with UN Women and UNFPA to launch a joint programme to empower adolescent girls and women through education, working on multiple areas inside and outside the school. The same spirit guides the girls’ right to education programme just launched in some of most disadvantaged provinces in Pakistan, along with our EU-supported programme bridging learning gaps for youth in response to the Syria crisis.

We can put a face on the 17 global goals that will guide the international community for the next 15 years – this is the face of a young adolescent girl, in school, learning in a safe environment, not subjected to violence, not married off early and given everything she needs to aspire and follow her dreams. This is the face of the future all societies need.


This article was first published in Plan International EU Office's Girls' Rights Gazette, published for the European Week of Action for Girls in October 2015.