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The real girl power
These are critical times for girls. As the global economy teeters on the brink, the wellbeing of millions in both the developed and the developing world is at risk. The unfolding crisis is not only eroding the value of financial markets and the growth rates of countries, but it disproportionately impacts the lives of the poor and marginalised, with girls being particularly affected. As the economic crisis is forcing countless workers into unemployment, social spending on key sectors such as education may also decrease as governments struggle to cut costs. Children may drop out of school to help their families cope, or schools themselves may shut down. While these reactions allow families, communities and nations in financial distress to cope with the crisis in the short term, they damage the prospects of sustainable social and economic recovery and development in the long term.
An educated population is a safeguard countries have against globalisation and increased competition, and during times of unpredictable shocks to the global economic and trading systems, such as the food and fuel crises of the past year and the current financial crisis, an educated labour force becomes the single most powerful long-term strategy to promote growth. Even as the temptation to cut public spending or donor commitments to education may be strong at such times, any decreases in educational budgets will only serve to further complicate the ramifications of the financial crisis. It must not be forgotten that education is a fundamental right that is central to the quest for better social and economic outcomes for societies. Without investment in education, the financial crisis cannot be dealt with in all its complexity.
Girls' education plays a pivotal role in enhancing the social and economic welfare of societies, especially in the developing world. Research has demonstrated that educating girls unlocks their potential and exerts a multiplier effect on their communities. According to the Center for Global Development, girls who have received schooling participate in greater numbers in the labour force and are able to earn higher wages. Educating girls is beneficial for the health of their national economies, which is boosted by educated girls who are able to successfully capitalise on their skills in the economic arena. Together, a larger and more productive workforce, combined with fewer dependants per worker, under favourable conditions, can result in greater national savings and increased economic growth.1
The United Nations Girls' Education Initiative, or UNGEI, launched by the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000, continues to advance the above arguments and work on education and gender equality. UNGEI's mission is primarily driven by Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education with the target to 'ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling', and MDG 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women with the target to 'eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015'.
In 2000, data on girls' education was worrying, for out of the 110 million children out of school, two-thirds were girls. To combat this trend, UNGEI was launched. As a partnership that embraces the United Nations system, governments, donor countries, non-governmental organisations, civil society, the private sector, communities and families, UNGEI assists national governments to fulfil their obligations towards education and gender equality for all children, boys and girls alike.
In the intervening nine years, many more girls are accessing education. According to current estimates by UNESCO, the number of children out of school has dropped by 32% to 75 million, and the proportion of girls among those out of school had also decreased by two-thirds to 55%.2 While these achievements are significant, much work remains to be done. For instance, in 2006, only 59 of the 176 countries with data had achieved gender parity in both primary and secondary education. While this is 20 countries more than in 1999, gender disparities in education persist.3 Moreover, the children most likely to drop out of school or to not attend at all are often girls and those from poorer households or living in rural areas.4
The partnership addresses these gaps and undertakes efforts to eliminate the barriers to learning, such as school fees and other costs of education, and to expand access to education in emergency situations. In order to achieve these objectives, the partnership promotes strategies that respond to the needs and priorities of the most disadvantaged, including girls and women, in education policies, plans and budgets. UNGEI also advocates for a holistic approach to education that works with other critical sectors such as health and child protection and for investments in education across the life-cycle, addressing early childhood education and development for children of poor families, and literacy and empowerment of women and young people.
The initiative operates at global, regional and country levels. Its Global Advisory Committee,5 composed of partners who share in the planning, decision-making, guidance and accountability of the partnership, consistently highlight the major issues pertaining to gender equality and education. Currently, the Swedish Agency for International Development Cooperation (SIDA) and the Academy for Educational Development (AED) co-chair the Committee, and UNICEF serves as the lead agency and Secretariat. At global level, the partnership is making an impact: educational policy and funding decisions are increasingly being made in a girl-friendly manner as evidenced by UNGEI's influence with the Education for All (EFA) High-Level Group and Fast Track Initiative processes. Online resources on girls' education and links to partner organisations are available via the UNGEI website, and eDiscussions on timely issues provide a forum for educators, policy-makers and other concerned individuals to exchange with others around the globe.
At the country level, UNGEI supports development efforts and seeks to influence decision-making and investments to ensure gender equity and equality in national education policies, plans and programmes. Partners in the initiative mobilise resources for both targeted project interventions and country programmes, as well as large-scale systemic interventions designed to impact on the whole education system. UNGEI streamlines its efforts through the strategic use of existing mechanisms such as Poverty Reduction Strategies, sector-wide approaches and UN Development Assistance Frameworks.
It is unfortunate that despite dedicated efforts, the international community could not meet the MDG 3 target for 2005 of gender parity in primary and secondary schooling. As we look towards 2015, we must ensure that all children complete primary schooling, with girls and boys having equal access to all levels of education. In today's precarious global environment, education is an agenda that simply cannot be left behind.
1 Center for Global Development (2008), 'Girls Count: A Global Investment and Action Agenda'
2 UNESCO (2009), Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2009, 'Overcoming Inequality: Why Governance Matters'
5 AED (Academy for Educational Development), ANCEFA (African Network Campaign on Education for All), ASPBAE (Asian South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education), CAMFED (Campaign for Female Education), CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency), Commonwealth Secretariat, DANIDA (Danish International Development Agency), DFID (The Department for International Development), FAWE (Forum for African Women Educationalists), ILO (International Labour Organization), Norad (Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation), Sida (Swedish Agency for International Development Cooperation), UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund), USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), WFP (United Nations World Food Programme), World Bank, World Vision International