The Education of Girls in the Developing WorldDr. Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Remarks at UN Headquarters
New York City
September 25, 2006
Fellow delegates, distinguished panelists, and guests, good afternoon and welcome. I thank Ambassador Bolton and the U.S. Mission for organizing this event, and I want to acknowledge especially Gretchen Bolton, who has worked tirelessly to promote worldwide literacy.
On behalf of the United States Government, I extend our appreciation for the leadership that UNICEF and UNESCO have undertaken to promote girls' education. Those organizations have been instrumental in protecting the needs and rights of children around the world.
First Lady Laura Bush has championed the cause of literacy in the United States and globally, and together with UNESCO further contributed to the international advancement of literacy with the launch last week of the Global Literacy Initiative. That Initiative emphasizes education as a means of empowering children and building bridges of tolerance and understanding. During the Global Literacy Conference chaired by Mrs. Bush, the First Lady stated, "ending illiteracy is a challenge for every country. And every country must do its part. . . . By investing in literacy instruction for women and girls now, governments ensure that future generations will enjoy the benefits of reading. Women who can read are much more likely to be advocates for their children’s education." Mrs. Bush noted that "[b]y investing in education, governments build their economies. When people read, they’re more likely to participate in business and trade, which leads to greater economic development."
In order to fulfill their responsibilities as architects of a better future, leaders around the globe must pursue the education of girls as a high priority. The education of girls holds the promise of improving lives, spurring economic growth, and creating opportunities in less-developed and post-conflict countries.
Why Invest in Girls’ Education?
By some estimates, one-sixth of the world's population is illiterate. Two-thirds of the illiterate are women. Girls continue to lag behind boys in basic literacy and numeracy, perpetuating a cycle of inequality and poverty that impedes developing countries from moving forward.
In much of the developing world, girls represent an untapped resource and a hope for the future. Educating girls is a crucial component of building a foundation for democracy, and a prerequisite for creating and sustaining free, open, prosperous societies.
Nations that marginalize half of their population cannot function and thrive as full democracies. Nor can countries that ignore this vital source of human capital be competitive in today's globalized economy.
Progress in Worldwide Literacy
A number of governments have made important strides in improving the status of girls’ education. Successful government programs in Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Kenya, and Mexico, for example, have helped more girls gain access to education through scholarships and stipends that help poor families send their daughters to school. Guinea, Guatemala, Peru, and Morocco likewise have successfully increased girls’ school enrollment rates.
Despite these gains, however, much more needs to be done to remove gender barriers to learning and literacy for girls.
The United States is committed to empowering a future generation of women leaders. I would like to share some highlights of the many ways in which we are helping to remove gender barriers in education, and to lay the foundation for a world that embraces the contributions of girls in countries large and small, rich and poor. Much of our success, thus far, has been achieved through partnering with the private sector, universities, NGOs, and active members of civil society to create synergies and mobilize resources.
In Afghanistan, the story of girls returning to school is one of the most hopeful signs of progress in a country recovering from decades of war and oppression. Of the more than 5 million Afghan children now back in school, nearly 40 percent are girls. U.S. public- and private-sector support has played a critical role in these gains.
The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, a public-private partnership launched by Presidents Bush and Karzai in January 2002, coordinates and implements concrete projects benefiting Afghan women. The Council’s initiatives have helped Afghan women and girls obtain literacy and vocational courses, healthcare, microcredit for start-up businesses, and other tools that enable them to take ownership of their lives.
Through the Council:
Broader Middle East
In the Middle East, a persistent education gap keeps many women from participating fully in the development of their societies, deprives them of a strong voice in the future of their countries, and hampers economic progress.
Through the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the American people are standing with women and girls in the region who seek greater freedom and opportunity. This presidential initiative brings together the U.S. Government and the private sector to provide internships and university training to young Arab businesswomen, civic education for school girls, advocacy campaigns to promote women's legal rights, literacy and skills training programs, networking for Arab women legal professionals, and political leadership education.
For example, we are partnering with Microsoft to train young women throughout the Arab-speaking world in information technology and general business skills that will help them gain economic independence and engage with the globalized economy, while also increasing their access to news and information.
In Africa, 60% of children who do not attend school are girls. Many women in Africa’s rural villages have little if any schooling, and face limited political and economic prospects. The opportunity of a basic education could help them transform their lives.
Working with our African partners, we are fostering the next generation of women leaders through scholarships from the Africa Education Initiative, which by the end of this decade will have given scholarships to 550,000 girls as part of a 600-million-dollar, multi-year program.
Latin America and Caribbean
The United States has also sought to elevate the status of girls’ education in our effort to promote development in our own hemisphere.
President Bush pledged our nation to improving literacy and teacher training throughout the region with the launch of the Centers of Excellence for Teacher Training (CETT) in 2001. A key feature of the initiative is the development of public-private partnerships to promote literacy. Through cooperation with Scholastic Books and the Sesame Street Workshop, for example, we have provided over 1,000 Centers for Excellence classrooms with libraries and supplemental Spanish-language reading materials.
Finally, I would like to turn to U.S. efforts on behalf of women and girls in Iraq.
Before the period of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women were among the most educated women in the Arab world. Despite decades of oppression, Iraqi women are back on the frontlines of fighting for change in their nascent democracy. Education and training of Iraqi women are integral to help them persevere in the cause of democracy and to inspire the next generation of Iraqi women leaders.
To enable Iraqi women to reconnect with the international community, we have awarded Fulbright Scholarships for Iraqi women to study the social sciences, public administration, law, business, and public health. We have helped young Iraqi women to attend a U.S. high school and live with an American host family through the Youth Exchange Program.
Under the Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative, the United States has provided over ten million dollars in grants to NGOS to expand the participation of Iraqi women in their country’s democratic transformation. Through these programs we have assisted thousands of Iraqi women in gaining the skills, contacts, and confidence they need to play a significant role in public life.
No country can thrive in which women's voices are silenced, their rights are violated, and their potential is left unrealized. That fact will grow ever more prominent as the world’s markets and opportunities continue to interconnect. Guaranteeing the human rights of women and children, including the education of girls, is fundamental to building stable, democratic, economically prosperous societies.
The education gap for girls in developing countries and post-conflict societies remains a collective global task. We must continue to work together to lay the foundation for a more sustainable, secure world. Thank you.
I now have the pleasure of introducing my dear friend and professional colleague Ann Veneman, the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and now the Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund. Ann has worked tirelessly throughout her career to reduce hunger and poverty around the world, and to enable children to attend school and flourish.
Released on September 28, 2006