Statement by Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, before the Human Rights Council on the occasion of the International Women’s Day

8 March 2011

Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to empowerment and gender equality in employment and beyond

Mr. President,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today the United Nations and the world at large commemorate International Women’s Day. This year’s global theme “Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women” is of particular importance.

The current upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa aptly illustrates thedisconnect between availability of education, and access to employment and social justice. At the core of the recent uprisings were the frustration of many educated young women and men over lack of jobs and denial of fundamental rights and freedoms.

It is not surprising that women have played a key role in the protest movements. Claiming the public space, they were at the forefront of the demonstrations.  They knew that women stood to suffer the most from a perpetuation of the status quo.

Women are demanding rights, freedoms and democracy. They are leveraging their knowledge and determination to gain influence and space.

The courage and determination of women in the Middle East and North Africa should be a source of inspiration for all of us, women, and men striving to achieve full respect for human rights in general, and the right to education for girls and women in particular.

Education must be inclusive and accessible to girls and boys in law and in practice.  Our ultimate goal must be to create an environment that is empowering for women and men alike and conducive to the realization of the full potential and human rights of all human beings.

Norms, principles and global commitments

Norms and principles of gender equality and non-discrimination are at the core of all fundamental human rights treaties. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “(e)veryone has the right to education.” This principle is forcefully reasserted in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education.

In addition to legally binding standards, States have made explicit commitments under the Beijing Platform of Action of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, which recognized education as a basic human right and an essential tool for achieving more equal relations between women and men.Further, with the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, all United Nations Member States  undertook to achieve universal primary education for girls and boys alike by 2015. States also agreed to promote gender equality and empower women, as well as work towards the elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015. In short, few other human rights have been the subject of such universal recognition, detailed codification in human rights law and far-reaching commitments as the right to education.

Global Realities
When measured in enrolment figures, gender disparity in primary education has decreased in the last decade globally. However, we are far from full compliance with legal obligations and political commitments. One in five girls of primary school age is not in school, compared to about one in six boys. More than 55 million girls worldwide receive no formal schooling whatsoever. In the least developed countries, women are 30 percent less likely to be literate than men. Existing gender inequality in primary education is amplified in secondary and higher education. According to UNESCO, in 2003, less than one-third of the countries queried reported gender parity among university students enrolled in first-degree courses.  In research-intensive fields such as science and engineering, only three out of 47 countries attained gender parity.

The 4 As: Availability, accessibility, acceptability and adaptability

Ladies and Gentlemen,

But figures, illustrative as they are, paint only part of the picture.  The right to education entails beyond enrolment data, what the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education called 4 As, namely: Availability, Accessibility, Acceptability and Adaptability.

Availability entails sufficient human, budgetary and material resources and their fair allocation. Accessibility means openness to all, especially to the most marginalized and vulnerable groups, with equality of opportunities and without discrimination of any kind. It includes physical accessibility – including that educational facilities should be within safe reach of everyone. And we know that the risk of abuse and harassment on the way to and from school is high among the factors preventing girls and young women to continue education. Accessibility also includes an economic dimension which reminds us that in many countries there is a correlation between direct and indirect school fees and girls’ enrolment levels, particularly during economic crises. Plainly put, in times of hardship, boys’ educational needs are often favored over girls’ rights.
The content of education and teaching methods have to be Acceptable, including relevant, appropriate and of good quality, also for girls. Thus States must ensure that school curricula do not perpetuate gender-stereotyping and gender inequality.  The last criterion, Adaptability directly relates to today’s global theme. Education has to be flexible so it can be tailored to the needs of students, especially those suffering disadvantages, particularly in changing societies, where girls and women are breaking gender stereotypes and are pressing forward to take full part in public, professional and political life.        
Ultimately, we need to ascertain the concrete effects of education in correcting social injustice, gender inequality and discrimination in law and practice, as well as obstacles to employment opportunities.  

Mr. President,

Let me conclude by reiterating that more and more women all over the world are taking advantage of education to assert their rights, and improve their own lives and that of their families, communities and countries.  But the obstacles on their pathway to empowerment are numerous, for girls as well as for women, in the form of discriminatory laws and practices that affect them day after day.

This is why I urge all of us to make the commitments of International Women’s Day matter every day to improve the lives of women and men alike. Let us stand in solidarity with women in every corner of the world who are working for positive change in their families, their communities and in their countries.

Thank you.