Statement by Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello, High Commissioner for Human Rights
March 8, 2003
Pronunciamento do alto-comissário de direitos humanos da onu em comemoração ao dia internacional da mulher, 8 de março de 2003
Thank you, Shashi [Tharoor], and thank you for inviting me.
Dear panelists, dear participants, this is a hard act to follow!
In commemorating International Women’s Day today, I have been asked to address the issue of gender equality and the Millennium Development Goals on education. Equality of opportunity and access to education – the second and third Goals — are integral to the achievement of gender equality. That is obvious. Potentially, these can form a virtuous circle: improving respect for human rights is essential to reaching the development goals, and working toward those goals should increase respect for human rights. Elimination of gender disparities in education both secures a fundamental human right and is essential for development. It has long been clear, and made abundantly clear in the last hour, that investing in girls’ education is among the most effective ways to promote economic growth and social well-being.
Discrimination against women and girls in education has been thoroughly documented, and I have witnessed it throughout my career. Women still make up two-thirds of the world’s illiterates. While there has been a strong international commitment to gender equality in education, in the course of the 1990’s many countries experienced a dramatic slowdown in their progress toward development goals. Some regions made almost no progress. Overall, gender disparities in access to primary education were reduced, though at a slower rate than in previous decades. Where countries faced severe conflicts, many of which I have known at first hand, access to education stagnated or declined, with drastic reductions in revenues for education and a decrease in spending. The impact was disproportionately hard for the poor, ethnic minorities and people in rural areas, and this not just in conflict areas.
Gender-based discrimination results in reduced access to education for girls, particularly in poor families; early marriages curtail girls’ education, as do fears about physical security and school curricula that are not gender-sensitive. The interventions needed are also well understood: the elimination of school fees so that boys will not be favoured on economic grounds; addressing the need for safe transport to and from school; ensuring that school facilities address parental concerns over girls’ safety and modesty; and increasing the proportion of women teachers.
The rewards are many: educated girls increase their ability to plan the births of their children and to improve nutrition and health for themselves and their families. Educated women improve their own capacity to generate income and thus avoid poverty. They can participate more effectively in decision-making at every level. Countries that have the highest development indicators also tend to meet the highest standards of female education and enable the greatest enjoyment of rights by women and girls. Indeed, if education is an important strategy to promote economic growth and the alleviation of poverty, it is also a crucial strategy to empower individuals to increase their control over their own destiny.
The obvious link between education and human rights was affirmed as far back as 1948, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and reaffirmed by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women as well as the Beijing Platform for Action.
For the right to education to be universally fulfilled, efforts to achieve the Millennium Goals must pay attention not only to the supply of schools and teachers but to the quality of education. If schools and their programs fail to provide relevant skills, the priority that must be given to the right of women and girls to education could well be questioned. Today, girls ands boys alike need to be literate in information technology in order to lessen the digital divide and ensure that both poverty and gender gaps are narrowed.
I want to emphasize, too, that if education does not promote basic human rights values and the principle of non-discrimination, it will fall short in enabling societies to prevent injustice and conflict and promote a culture of tolerance and peace. But education does not demonstrate — and help every boy and every girl learn — that all children around the world have equal rights, then having every child in school will not guarantee a better future for them, their families and their communities.
Boys and men need to be educated in the broadest possible sense, not just about the obvious – the principles of equality and dignity – but also about their responsibility in transforming their societies in such a way that these concepts become reality, and girls and women are not only empowered to exercise fully all their rights but are also protected against all forms of discrimination and violence. This is a cross-cutting concern that will be at the very core of my mandate as High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Let me say firmly that, in meeting all these promises and carrying out all of these plans, women must be not only beneficiaries but full participants. In this broad sense, education is also about communications. I have decided – in close consultation and cooperation with [Mr.] Shashi [Tharoor] and his Department [for Public Information] – to develop a mass communications strategy for the understanding, the promotion and the protection of human rights. Women’s rights will be a central theme, and not only a mere theme but a call to action and for an alliance to transform norms into actual national policies and societal practices.
A final caution: As we work toward the Millennium Goal of ensuring equal access to education we must be certain that it is not achieved in a way that continues to neglect the most vulnerable women and girls. Focusing on a limited set of clear objectives is useful in reinforcing commitments, attracting resources, monitoring progress and keeping momentum. However, we must avoid the risk of emphasizing numerical targets so much that we miss patterns of exclusion. Statistics can lie, and often do lie. We must stay alert to questions of quality and comprehensiveness. Overall enrollment figures and averages can hide enormous disparities, both across and within countries and regions. Gender discrimination affects the poorest much more severely. Averaging the numbers of a wealthy country and a poor one will give an inaccurate picture of both. And having greater numbers of boys drop out of school should not be taken for a meaningful improvement in gender equality!
Nor should progress be considered solid if educators miss the opportunity to promote respect for fundamental human rights. Human-rights education solidifies human-rights gains. Women, who were and continue to be victims of all sorts of overt and covert forms of discrimination, know this from experience and are therefore in a much better position to right this wrong than men. Human rights education means this generation, our children, and their children will not have to re-learn what we have learned – with great difficulty and often from direct and not positive experience – about the centrality of human rights. Only then will efforts to ensure an education for everyone and to eliminate gender disparities in and through education decisively, and lastingly, contribute to the empowerment of women, the achievement of gender equality, and the promotion of sustainable human development.