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15 May 2014
Closing the Gap: Gender Disparity and Education in the Developing World

Distinguished panelists tackle women and education in the developing world. 

On May 15, UNA-NCA's Human Rights Committee hosted a thought provoking panel discussion highlighting the importance of improving access to education for girls and women globally at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). "Closing the Gap: Gender Disparity and Education in the Developing World" brought together four panelists who discussed their own experiences and provide insight on how to close the gap in the gender disparity in education. Additionally, they examined ideas that governments and organizations can focus on in the coming years and potential action steps that can be taken. The panelists included: Dr. Edwin H. Gragert, Director, Global Campaign for Education-USA, Lyric Thompson, Senior Policy Manager, International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Dr. Farhana Shah, Education Expert, Khadim Hussain, Founding Director/Chief Executive, GRACE Association, Pakistan.

"I have three sisters. The oldest one never attended school and got married at 13, the second one went to school for two years only and got married at age 15, the youngest one finished middle school and got married at 18. She agreed to marry only on one condition: She would be allowed to continue her studies even after marriage."

Khadim Hussain,
Founding Director/Chief Executive,

GRACE Association, Pakistan

Everyone should have the right to education. Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that education should be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. If everyone has the right to education then why are we still discussing the fact that education is essential for young girls and other disadvantaged children? Are their any barriers and challenges for girls to realize their right to education? Lastly, how can we improve access to education for girls and students with disabilities around the world? Some of the answers are found in the new World Bank report Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity: Less educated girls are far more likely to suffer violence, child marriage, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending or their own health care than better-educated peers, which harms them, their children, and communities.

There are numerous reports, studies and vast amount of data available that highlights the restrictions and obstacles facing women and girls worldwide, that includes their right to education, their right to choose profession of their own choice: in short making decisions about their own lives like men do.

On May 15, UNA-NCA's Human Rights Committee hosted a thought provoking panel discussion highlighting the importance of improving access to education for girls and women globally at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). "Closing the Gap: Gender Disparity and Education in the Developing World" brought together four panelists who discussed their own experiences and provide insight on how to close the gap in the gender disparity in education. Additionally, they examined ideas that governments and organizations can focus on in the coming years and potential action steps that can be taken. The panelists included: Dr. Edwin H. Gragert, Director, Global Campaign for Education-USA, Lyric Thompson, Senior Policy Manager, International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Dr. Farhana Shah, Education Expert, Khadim Hussain, Founding Director/Chief Executive, GRACE Association, Pakistan.

Dr. Gragert emphasized that education is at the heart of all elements of development and growth.  He shed light on the significance of girls' education as educated girls and women raise healthier families and build necessary self-confidence to make life-transforming decisions. UN Millennium Development goals targeted to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005 and in all levels of education no later than 2015. Dr. Gragert pointed out the current global statistics that show the enormous amount of work needs to be done in order to realize this goal.

Lyric Thompson who spoke on behalf of ICRW shared several publications for achieving gender parity at the primary, secondary and tertiary level. She discussed pathways of empowerment associated with ICRW, such as access to equal quality education, potential financial returns, ensure risk free environment at schools and empowering students to make choices related to employment, marriage and parenthood including right to equal political participation. Both speakers agreed that it would take significant amount of time and concerted efforts to attain these goals.

Dr. Farhana Shah shared her personal experience and discussed the kind of challenges young women face in accessing higher education in patriarchal societies such as Pakistan. The challenges include breaking age-old traditions and fighting for fundamental right of education and choice of profession in male dominated countries such as Pakistan with far less opportunities for women on account of their gender and due to prevalent extremist mindset that is against the idea of women's education and empowerment. She mentioned Malala Yousufzai's brave fight for girls' education as a hopeful sign for others in this battle in Pakistan and highlighted the obstacles that still need to be overcome.

Khadim Hussain energized the discussion by sharing his personal victory over polio, and his persistent optimism and activism in overcoming the prevailing norms. He engaged with the local community to bring positive change in the education sector in his village in Skardu. He shared how he and his few male friends went door to door, campaigned tirelessly for years and after facing initial tenacious resistance from the religious scholars and community leaders finally became successful in making them understand the importance of education. Since 1992, 700 students have graduated from his schools, which includes 70% girls including 14% disabled.

We all agree that education is central for development and progress of any nation. But this goal of equal access to education cannot be achieved without honest political will and higher budget for basic education system by governments. Therefore, building strong political will and global partnerships in order to amplify the voices that value education in Congress and parliaments around the world are absolutely essential.

It would also be worthwhile to bring more role models such as Khadim Hussain to the forefront so that they can voice their stories of courage and passion and become inspirational role model for others.

All the panelists at the discussion forum had a consensus that educated mothers help build educated nation. Through collective action and brainstorming, we need to find more ways and means to improve access of women to education globally. In that respect, digital technology, mobile devices and social media could provide helpful and cost effective solutions. May be its time to introduce a new type of Internet, "Girls' Internet", as access to technology makes them more involved and feel more empowered.

For the first time, tragedies like the shooting of a Pakistani education activist, Malala Yousufzai and Nigerian school girls' abduction by extremists have captured the global attention and the prominence that this issue so desperately deserves. Now, each one of us has a role to play. Collective action is key here. We must ensure that these stories remain in our thoughts, at the forefront of the media and on the decision tables of the world leaders as number one priority.

We must support frequent student exchange and leadership programs, encourage action hours every week, bring young people to big cities for training, conduct virtual training sessions, instill essential skills and expertise in them so that they can develop decision making abilities.

Reaching global gender parity and equal education for all is not only a destination but also a journey. Beyond any doubt, it is a path paved with significant roadblocks and obstructions. It is a global issue that requires global efforts and help. We all have a responsibility to remove these roadblocks and help in educating and empowering numerous girls and women and disadvantaged students around the globe who so rightly and clearly deserve as bright and successful a future as any of us in a free world.

By: Tehreem Saifey
Tehreem Saifey is an international development specialist based in Washington DC. She is a research scholar on gender, human rights and security issues.
 

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