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Leaders for Education Series - Hilde F. Johnson

©UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0217/Glenna Gordon
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Frafjord Johnson visits children at a safe house outside Monrovia, Liberia

Hilde F. Johnson is a Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and a twice Minister of International Development. Here she tells us why education is the right of every child.

Ms. Johnson, you were Norway's Minister of International Development, twice: from 1997 to 2000, and from 2001 to 2005.  Why should governments invest in education? How does receiving an education translate into global development and gender equality?

First of all, education is a fundamental human right. Everyone, everywhere has the same right to education. It is crucial for the individual, the community and for nation building. Neither the Millennium Development Goals nor the goals in a World Fit for Children will become a reality unless quality education for all is addressed.

Second, there is ample evidence that investing in education, especially for girls, is the most profitable investment for any country. When governments ensure that children have access to a quality education rooted in gender equality, they create a ripple effect of opportunity that impacts themselves as well as future generations. Education is perhaps the most vital intervention to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty.

Third, education can be seen as a basic infrastructure in a society. It helps develop the human capital base fundamental to a vibrant economy, society and country.  In addition, education is a decisive factor in restoring hope and stability, especially in the aftermath of crisis. It helps to consolidate the peace dividends and offers a path to development, poverty reduction,  and lasting peace.

It is 10 years after the launch of UNGEI, what is your message today to policy makers and global leaders about gender equality and education?

Concrete gains have been made towards gender parity and equality in education, but many challenges remain.. In the last 10 years, 33 million more children had access to education. The gender gap in primary school enrolment is narrowing. Sixty percent of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education. However, too many of the world’s children, particularly girls, are still out of school or do not receive the quality of education they deserve. According to the latest UNICEF estimates, more than half of the 101 million children of primary school age who are out of school are girls. They are a stark reminder of the unfulfilled promise of universal education.

Partnerships have been vital to the progress made so far on girls’ education. Attaining gender equality in education is a huge challenge, and all stakeholders – including national governments, policy makers, the international community, and civil society – must work in partnership and make concerted efforts to reach this goal.

By ensuring that every girl and every boy has access to quality learning, we lay the foundation for growth, transformation, innovation, opportunity and equality. When girls go to school, every development goal set by the international community becomes achievable. Girls who receive quality, basic education are more empowered and better prepared to protect themselves against violence, abuse, exploitation and trafficking, and are less vulnerable to disease, including AIDS. Educated women are less likely to marry early or die in childbirth; they are more likely to have healthier babies, send their children to school, contribute fully to political, social and economic development, and are better able to protect their children from malnutrition, AIDS, trafficking and sexual exploitation.

On 4 Feb 2010, you launched “The Humanitarian Action Report,” UNICEF's only publication dealing specifically with the rights and needs of children and women in emergencies. In light of the recent earthquake in Haiti and ongoing crises around the world, why is education important for children in emergency situations?

Haiti was one of the countries UNICEF classified as ‘in crisis’ when the Humanitarian Action Report was completed. Faced with abject poverty, multiple hurricanes, and civil unrest, the country was already in need of humanitarian assistance even before the earthquake hit.

Nearly 40 per cent of Haitians are less than 14 years old. More than half of Haiti’s children did not attend primary school before the earthquake. UNICEF and partners are working to get all children – girls and boys - to school. This is also an opportunity to transform Haiti into a nation fit for all its children.  As in Haiti, UNICEF is also engaged in changing the lives of children all over the world.

Children’s right to education is most at risk during, and after any crisis situation. Children have the right to and need an education, especially during times of chaos and crisis. Education can provide children with a sense of normalcy and safety, including much-needed psychosocial support. Restarting schools also provides a protective environment for children who are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in the wake of emergencies.
Education is also the only type of infrastructure that can never be destroyed by war.. Ensuring continuity in education after crises is a catalyst for social transformation. Restoring quality education in countries that have emerged from conflict can be among the first peace dividends, laying the foundation for long term security and stability in the lives of children, their communities and countries. 

Speaking from your experience, what happens to a girl or boy who does not receive an education?

Education transforms lives. When a child does not go to school they miss out on a critical component in their development as an individual and as a member of society. Without education, children are less likely to be healthy, grow strong, be safe or fully participate in their communities. Each child has dreams that may never be fulfilled, potential that may never be realized.

During and in the aftermath of any emergency, children who are not in school or other safe spaces face higher risks of abduction and recruitment into armed groups. They are also more susceptible to sexual exploitation, trafficking and exploitative child labour.

UNICEF works tirelessly to ensure that every child – regardless of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background or circumstances – has access to quality education. Our innovative programmes and initiatives target the world’s most disadvantaged children: the excluded, the vulnerable and the invisible.

What elements in your education helped launch your career?

Without education, I would have been nowhere. I truly appreciate the opportunities I got as a young girl - when there were no questions about completing my education, and opportunities were equal for both boys and girls. With no school fees at primary or secondary school, and with university being affordable to all, it was up to me how I made use of this opportunity.

I ended up studying political and social sciences, with post graduate studies in Social Anthropology. My one year fieldwork in Tanzania and the work on my thesis has maybe been most valuable to me. This experience has qualified me in so many ways to understand more and deeper, and hopefully, making me better at what I am doing, where-ever that may be.

Is there anything else about education and your work that you’d like to add?

Education is the right of every child. This right stands, whoever you are, whatever your background. It extends beyond any differences, of gender, of ethnicity, of minorities, beyond physical or psychological barriers. Excluding the poorest, ethnic minorities, disabled children, or pregnant girls from this right is unacceptable.
We are very far from including all children, realizing this right for every child. This is a failure of all of us. We cannot allow this situation to prevail. That is why the rallying call for Education for All needs to lead to concrete and tangible action for every child deprived of this right. We cannot be satisfied before this is a reality.

Click here for Hilde F. Johnson's biography.

Click here for more on the upcoming E4 - Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality Conference



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