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Push for Girls’ Education Ahead of G8

PARIS, May 25 2011 (IPS) - Amid a flurry of meetings in Europe, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will help to launch a “global partnership for girls’ and women’s education” here Thursday at the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The high-profile launch of the initiative is meant to raise awareness of the fact that 39 million girls, or 26 percent of the 11-15 age group, are not enrolled in either primary or secondary education, according to UNESCO.

Clinton will be joined by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UNESCO’s director- general Irina Bokova, in a bid to turn some of the world’s attention to the gender issue, even as most eyes will be on the opening of the two-day Group of Eight (G8) summit in the coastal town of Deauville, northern France.

Activists and parliamentarians have called for the world’s major economies to focus on investment in women’s education and health as a path to development, but this of itself is not one of the official topics on the agenda at the summit of world leaders.

Along with cyber security, nuclear safety, and the global financial crisis, the main subjects scheduled to be discussed at the summit include financial aid for the countries in North Africa emerging from dictatorships and the ongoing turmoil in the region.

Ending the Libyan conflict is seen as a priority, and there will also be a special session on partnership with Africa, with nine African leaders scheduled to attend the meeting.

Some policymakers say that all discussions and decisions should be tagged “where are the women”, as it is often girls and women who are affected the most by political upheaval and conflict, especially in developing countries.

“Seventy percent of the world’s poor are women. They don’t have the same resources and their rights aren’t respected,” said Pauline Chabbert, an education specialist with the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.

“Women have less access to training, to school, and governments need to focus on this,” she told IPS in an interview.

UNESCO says that only one-third of countries have achieved “gender parity” at the secondary level and that more political will is needed to invest in girls’ education.

The new global partnership, also known as “Better Life, Better Future” brings together policymakers and the private sector to focus on programmes aimed at “stemming the dropout of adolescent girls in the transition from primary to secondary education and in lower secondary schools”, said Svein Oesttveit, the executive office director in UNESCO’s education sector.

It will also focus on increasing women’s literacy programmes through stronger advocacy and joint action. A number of companies, including Microsoft and Nokia, have signed on to advance the education of women and girls, with a particular focus on Africa, Oesttveit said.

He told IPS that it was a coincidence that the launch of the global partnership for girls’ and women’s education comes at the beginning of the G8 summit.

“The high-level delegates are in Europe for other meetings as well, so the time was right,” he said. The prime ministers of Mali and Bangladesh are set to attend the launch in a show of support.

The event also coincides with “Africa Week” at UNESCO – a five-day showcasing of the continent’s art and culture, along with symposia on the “role of women in the rebirth of Africa and the building of peace”.

Oesttveit said that while UNESCO fully supports the UN goal of “education for all”, statistics show that globally it is girls who are falling behind, although in some regions such as the Caribbean, it is mostly boys who drop out of school.

UNESCO says that internationally girls face a “distinctive set of barriers to learning” which range from early marriage to teen pregnancy and gender-based violence in and around school.

“Targeted measures are needed to get girls to school and keep them there,” the agency says, emphasising that a lack of education for girls means high numbers of adult women without literacy skills.

Currently two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate adults are women, according to UN figures.

The organisation estimates that some 1.8 million lives could be saved in sub-Saharan Africa if girls were to benefit from universal secondary education. Research shows that “each extra year of a woman’s schooling reduces the probability of infant mortality by 5 percent to 10 percent,” UNESCO says.

In addition, children raised by women who are literate have a higher likelihood of living beyond age five, the agency adds.

Experts also say that an extra year of female schooling reduces the fertility rate by 10 percent. They point to the case of Mali, where women with no education have an average of seven children while those with secondary or higher-level education have an average of three, generally making for a better quality of life.

One of the problems facing those wishing to improve education opportunities for girls is religious and cultural norms that discriminate against women, observers say. Many of UNESCO’s member states are guilty of such bias, but agency insiders say they cannot get bogged down in religious debates. Instead, work is being done to change community perceptions, according to Oesttveit.

“There is no justification – be it cultural, economic or social – for denying girls and women an education,” UNESCO’s director-general Bokova has stated. “It is a basic right and an absolute condition for reaching all the internationally agreed development goals.”

It will be noted that among the G8 heads of state meeting in Deauville, only one is a woman – German chancellor Angela Merkel.

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