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Girls’ Education: The Solution We Can No Longer Ignore

Three questions to Gabriela Ramos

Girls’ Education: The Solution We Can No Longer Ignore
 Gabriela Ramos
Assistant Director-General for the Social and Human Sciences of UNESCO

Staggering numbers persistently show that young girls are the most heavily impacted by climate change, poverty and lack of education. This is caused and reinforced by the gender disparities that underline most of our societies, and especially the most vulnerable communities. At a time when the pandemic is obliging us to have a deep reflection of our education system, attention needs to be paid to the powerful tool that is girls’ education in disrupting the positive feedback loop between gender discrimination and vulnerability. Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences of UNESCO, shares her thoughts and experience around the potential and necessity of girls education in advancing the Development Goals.

The sanitary and economic crises have both put a strain and forced us to rethink our approach to education. How has this applied to girls’ education in particular, especially with regards to the development goals?

Experience from Zika, Ebola and other outbreaks showed that girls’ education was often a collateral victim of the crisis. Covid-19 is more widespread around the world, so the impact is even greater, calling into question 70 years of progress. UNESCO estimates that nearly 24 million children and adolescents, including 11 million girls and young women, may drop out of education due to the pandemic's economic impact alone, adding to the 130 million girls who were already out of school.

This is not just a blow to their education. The other impacts are horrendous. The UN Population Fund looked at the impact of a six-month lockdown on women and girls over the next decade. These include 7 million additional unintended pregnancies, 31 million more cases of gender-based violence, 13 million child marriages and 2 million female genital mutilation cases that could have been avoided. 

In terms of the Sustainable Development Goals, this is a catastrophe. Several goals are affected immediately and directly - education, health and well-being, gender equality. But poverty, hunger, unemployment and so on are also exacerbated, and the damage will be long lasting. Therefore, there is no time to waste. 

In response, UNESCO launched the Global Education Coalition platform for collaboration and exchange to protect the right to education. UNESCO is also partnering with the World Bank and Unicef, to enable all children to return to school and to a supportive learning environment, in order to improve their health and psychosocial well-being and other needs by the end of 2021. It is also playing an important role in the Generation Equality efforts, to raise the visibility of the challenge to ensure girls go back to school.

How does girls’ education play into climate action today? Where have you seen concrete progress?

The Youth for Climate protests that gathered hundreds of thousands across the world is an encouraging example in so many ways. There, we saw girls like Greta Thunberg taking an active role as educators and leaders in raising consciousness and moving people towards action. Female students may have represented a majority of the protestors, according to some research into the profiles of climate activists. 

More generally, the issues raised by your first question are amplified by climate change. The poor and the vulnerable are the worst affected, and within that group, girls are usually at the bottom of the ladder. Their education and well-being are sacrificed for the sake of the rest of the family when drought, floods or other disasters worsened by climate change strike.

In fact, educating girls is one of the great unheard solutions to climate change. 

On the other hand, research by Brookings shows that girls’ education can strengthen climate strategies in three ways: by helping girls to acquire confidence and advancing their reproductive health and rights; supporting girls’ climate leadership and pro-environmental decision-making; and developing girls’ green skills for green jobs. 

In fact, educating girls is one of the great unheard solutions to climate change. Project Drawdown used UNESCO data to calculate that educating girls could result in a massive reduction in CO2 emissions of 51.48 gigatons by 2050 - the fifth most impactful solution to meet the 1.5 degrees target, well ahead of more publicized solutions like electric cars or rooftop solar panels. Investing in family planning in low and middle income countries could bring that total to 85.42 gigatons, or almost a decade’s worth of China’s emissions. 

You have been involved in international organizations and multilateral institutions such as the OECD, the Paris Peace Forum, and UNESCO today. During a time when multilateral action has been shaken by multiple crises, how do you see it contribute to female empowerment most effectively?

First of all, you’re right to frame the question in terms of "contributing" to empowerment. Saying that such and such an institution or agreement empowers women and girls is a contradiction. Empowerment is not something you receive, it’s something you do. 

In that respect, multilateral institutions can support members to advance their commitments to gender equality, through an evidence base about the benefits of women empowerment in the economic and social field and through the monitoring of such commitments. International institutions can also bring best practices and support countries to upgrade their policy frameworks. The UNESCO gender report provides useful analysis and data on issues of relevance. 

This kind of input is needed not just to understand and tackle problems, but to highlight opportunities and show how different systems interact. For example, better access to education accounts for about half the economic growth in OECD countries in the past 50 years, and greater gender equality in education boosts female labour force participation and economic growth.

The officials within international institutions can also bring the evidence to the table. This happened to me when the report helped me convince member countries in the G20 to commit to the goal of reducing the gap in labour force participation rates between men and women by 25% by 2025, and to monitor the follow-up. This was a groundbreaking agreement that opened the door for the establishment of the W20, and ensured that any new presidency included a gender commitment. 

Likewise, the UNESCO Working group on the Digital Gender Divide, along with a report that I oversaw at the OECD, exposed the incredible gaps in the digital world - 85%of developments in the field are made by male-only teams. We are working to correct this across the board. ur Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence includes a strong chapter on gender - only 22% of all AI professionals are women. This will set another vision for the AI world to be more inclusive. 

AI isn’t an isolated case. Only 30% of researchers are women, an issue we’re tackling through our Women in Science Programme. Fighting stereotypes is a part of this, since they perpetuate gender inequality in the access to STEM study and careers. In fact, stereotypes play an insidious role in girls’ and women’s professional life generally, even the so-called positive stereotypes that orient them towards traditional "caring" roles. We set up a program to tackle stereotypes with a regional focus, since the issues are context-specific and thus change from one place to another.

Stereotypes play an insidious role in girls’ and women’s professional life, even the so-called positive stereotypes that orient them towards traditional "caring" roles. 

We can break gender biases by affirmative action, quotas and targets. We can give practical help like the one provided by a program I launched in my home country of Mexico, called "NinasSTEM pueden" to encourage girls to go into STEM studies and careers. In Mexico too, I also worked to establish the gender quota in the Mexican Congress, which is now the most gender-equal congress in the world. So, international institutions can indeed help find the best practices and work with members to advance meaningful changes.

We also promote policies to end gender discrimination in all its forms, whether in traditional social systems incorporating systemic misogyny or artificial intelligence applications that promote stereotypes and are not inclusive. We can provide role models, as in our latest campaign in the Arab world. We can also, as the EU says in its latest Gender Action Plan, "lead by example", by striving for a gender-responsive and balanced leadership, more capacity and expertise and a reinforced network of gender focal points. The OECD did this when I was Chief of Staff and G20 Sherpa - the Chief Economist and Chief Statistician were women too.

Multilateral cooperation can also provide the funding to help women fight for a better life. I applaud the G7 commitment to fund global targets to get 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10, in low and lower middle income countries by 2026. As they say, educating girls is one of the smartest investments countries can make to fight poverty, grow economies, save lives, and build back better from Covid-19. 



Copyright: Aamir QURESHI / AFP

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