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Q&A: ‘Empowering Girls Alone Will Not Bring Social Change’

Joan Erakit interviews JOSEPHINE BOURNE, associate director at UNICEF, on upcoming ministerial meetings on global education

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 16 2013 (IPS) - The Global Education First Initiative stands at the forefront of this week’s Learning Ministerial Meetings in Washington, D.C., underscoring the importance of education in the development of the global economy.

The initiative is a project of United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who, along with the World Bank president and Gordon Brown, the U.N. special envoy for global education, is hosting the meetings, which take place Apr. 16 through 18.

Josephine Bourne, associate director and global chief of education at UNICEF. Credit: UNICEF/2013/Susan Markisz

Josephine Bourne, associate director and global chief of education at UNICEF. Credit: UNICEF/2013/Susan Markisz

The ministerial meetings will bring together ministers of finance and education from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Haiti, South Sudan, Yemen, India, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Bangladesh and will focus on sustainable solutions in discussions between the private sector and civil society organisations.

Josephine Bourne, UNICEF associate director and global chief of education, spoke with IPS about the upcoming meetings and the challenges of education for all. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: As part of the secretary-general’s Global Education First Initiative, what is the role of UNICEF and how are you pooling your resources to push this campaign forward?

A: The Global Education First Initiative, or GEFI, provides a unique opportunity to catalyse greater political will and commitment at various levels, from rallying key stakeholders in the field of education to securing sustainable funding sources for education.

UNICEF has and will continue to support the objectives of GEFI through a number of actions to strengthen our work on children who are out of school and by ensuring we provide education opportunities to the most vulnerable, particularly girls, children with disabilities and children living in conflict.

UNICEF is also working to mobilise youth to bring in their voices and perspectives on youth education issues, which include child labour, child marriage and teacher training.

Q: If there is one issue right now that greatly diminishes a child’s opportunity to obtain an education, what would it be?  

A: Being born a girl, into poverty, in a rural area often combine to diminish a child’s opportunity for an education. When a girl in the developing world receives seven years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.

Girls from disadvantaged groups are often the most marginalised of all.

Educated girls have fewer, healthier and more educated children, hence reducing poverty at a community level, and they lead to improvements in national economic growth, an increase in female leaders, and lower levels of population growth and greater sustainable development.

Q: How can civil society and the private sector work together to come up with solutions that can effectively work in each country? Undoubtedly, civil society and the private sector have a key role to play in ensuring and sustaining an environment where children can learn and thrive. 

A: UNICEF has a strong relationship with civil society and the private sector that has only strengthened in recent years.

Through Schools for Africa, for example, UNICEF is working with governments, local authorities, communities and other partners in 11 countries to create the necessary conditions to attract children to school, keep them there and provide them with safe and protective environments in which they can learn, play and thrive.

Another new and unique initiative is P.L.A.Y., Play and Learning Activities for Youth, which features portable playground units that children can assemble into any structure, helping them to tap into their imagination, curiosity and self-expression, and help them learn to collaborate with peers. This partnership is between Disney, UNICEF and organisations in Haiti and Bangladesh to provide safe recreation for children living in disaster recovery conditions and extreme poverty.

Q: For teachers and community leaders working on a local level where results may be harder to measure, will these meetings at the World Bank at least provide a map for success that can be followed?

A: The progress and work that happens in a country is often determined by the policies developed by government and development partners. Everything we do – every decision we make, every programme we launch, and every dollar we spend – should be judged by how it affects the children and communities we serve.

The success of the meetings at the World Bank will depend on whether the priority actions identified improve the educational opportunities of the most vulnerable children in each of those countries – girls, children in rural areas, under threat or living with disabilities.

We also need to improve how we monitor results for the most vulnerable children. This is something UNICEF is working on, with UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics.

Teachers, community leaders and parents must continue to deliver services on the ground to enable children to enrol, remain and learn in school, while governments and development partners must advocate for policies that promote and protect the right to education for all children. Next week’s meeting will take up these important concerns.

Q: The relationship between gender equality and education has been continuously discussed in both media and politics. Is there something special about this relationship that we can hope to learn from the recent documentary “Girl Rising”? How is this film being used to advocate for young girls in the countries that will be presenting cases during this week’s meetings?

A: Girls from disadvantaged groups are often the most marginalised of all and require special attention. Being a girl from a poor family or ethnic or linguistic minority group, living in a rural or remote region or in a country affected by conflict increases tremendously the risk of being out of school.

“Girl Rising” showcases the experience of girls as they face various barriers to gaining access to school. Drawing on the lived experiences of girls, the film presents a vibrant picture of the great promise school represents while also showcasing the inequity in the distribution of educational opportunities for millions of girls around the world.

The film is an important contribution to building awareness about issues concerning adolescent girls and their empowerment. That said, empowering girls alone will not suffice to bring about social change.

Protecting and promoting the human right to education for all children, girls included, requires the involvement and commitment of all duty bearers – of individuals, parents, communities, institutions and international bodies, like that of the UNICEF and the U.N. family.

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