Durban, 26 October 2010
Dear colleagues and friends,
I am delighted to participate in SANPAD’s annual Women in Research Conference. We are women who have had the benefit of primary, secondary, tertiary and higher education. We must be mindful of the advantages that education has given us, and unite to address women’s unequal status which persists in all parts of the world, both in their professional and private lives.
Tonight, I speak not only as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but also as an African woman and a committed, long-time advocate for the empowerment of women and the achievement of the full of enjoyment of human rights. I also speak to you as someone who is convinced that open discussions among countries and cultures make us stronger; and that women’s networks multiply the effect of advocacy at the local, community, national and international levels.
The critical importance of education to the advancement of women and the realization of their human rights is almost universally acknowledged, and I will not elaborate on this point before this audience. Rather, my remarks will focus on the centrality of the right to education to the achievement of gender equality. I will also make clear how obstacles to access to education exacerbate discrimination against women and girls and undermine their capacity to counter mutually reinforcing factors of disempowerment. I will conclude by addressing specific aspects of the theme of women and research.
My own history is a testament to the power of education. Some of you may know that my forebears were sugarcane cutters. My father was a bus driver, and my mother a homemaker. We were poor.
My mother was convinced of the importance of education, particularly for her daughters, as she considered that knowledge could avert oppression. When I was sixteen, I wrote an essay on the role of South African women in educating children on human rights. This proved to be a turning point in my life. My essay was published, and thereafter my community raised funds in order to send whom they saw as a promising, but impecunious, young woman to university. Perhaps the members of my community did not know that a right to education existed and was enshrined in international law. But they believed in education. They understood that it is one of the paths out of poverty and discrimination.
Despite their efforts and good will, I almost did not realize my dream of becoming a lawyer, because when I entered university during the apartheid regime everything and everyone was segregated. The university registrar discouraged me from pursuing legal studies arguing that I could not expect white secretaries to take instructions from a person of my colour and background. However, I persevered and prevailed.
From then on, and like many others around the world, I have worked hard to ensure that other women and girls would be given the same opportunities to do what they can to prosper, make their mark and be recognized for their contributions.
Our quest for women’s advancement is underpinned by our belief in equality, and in the consideration that discrimination against women, including gender-based violence are, as the economists say, “externalities” that the world can ill-afford. And so are their lack of access to education and equal career opportunities. As scholar Devaki Jain has pointed out, the degree and access women have to just development is a measure of “the stage of development of a nation.” This is why empowering women and girls, and creating an environment that is conducive to the realization of their full potential should be high priorities for all nations. These are also the human rights obligations of States.
Girls in this country and around the world now grow up with an increased sense of self-confidence. They draw inspiration from the fact that women have gained access to institutions in the public sphere which had traditionally been considered the domain of men.
In South Africa, as well as in many other States, the right to such access is enshrined in Constitutions and other legal provisions. Women’s access to paid employment has also improved. They now occupy high-level positions in many international, regional, national and local decision-making bodies.
In almost all countries, which grant suffrage to their citizens, women now have the right to vote. However, this transformation has not benefited all. The legal provisions and progressive policies which seek to eliminate discrimination must be implemented fully to meet the aspirations of all women and change their daily lives.
This was one of the objectives of last month’s summit at the United Nations in New York on the review of the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. Here the debate focused on how to improve the conditions of communities and groups at risk, including those of the many voiceless and powerless women.
The Millennium Development Goals are eight time-bound development targets for States that address many dimensions of poverty, such as hunger, disease, lack of clean water supplies and education. Goal 2 calls for universal primary education, and Goal 3 focuses on gender equality in education. The summit’s outcome document reiterated the international community’s commitments to pursue more vigorously women’s education and empowerment and to do so within a human rights framework.
The consensus reached at the summit provides the basis for accelerated action. The following facts and figures emphasize its urgency. Globally, one in five girls of primary school age are 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.
The recent financial and economic crises and their effects on the well being of girls in many countries have rendered the achievement of gender equality, including in access to education, further removed from reality. Girls have been the first to be withdrawn from school in order to help their families cope with economic hardship and to ensure that their families have the resources to educate their brothers.
Women’s exclusion from education and participation underpins and facilitates other problems they face, such as discriminatory patterns in ownership and exploitation of land, dispossession and forced eviction, and inequality in relation to the right to inheritance. United Nations studies indicate that women produce half of the world’s food, and their work accounts for two-thirds of the world’s working hours. However, they earn only 10 percent of the world’s income and own less than one percent of property worldwide.
The United Nations Children’s Fund - UNICEF - has made absolutely clear that gender equality in education contributes to the well-being of children generally, to maternal health, as well as to the reduction in the incidence of HIV/AIDS and malnutrition. Accordingly, not only is the achievement of this goal a requirement for the fulfillment of this human right for girls and women, it is essential to achieving other Millennium Development Goals.
Elimination of gender inequality is an obligation in international human rights law. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to education. This right is elaborated further in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The human rights treaty body which monitors implementation of this Covenant, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, has concluded that full enjoyment of the right to education is the surest way to empower individuals so that they can enjoy all their human rights. It also considers that education must be inclusive and accessible to all, in law as well as in practice. No provider of public or private education may discriminate on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
To achieve full equality for women in law and practice in relation to this right and all others, it is vital to apply the principles and standards enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Convention, which enjoys almost universal acceptance, binds States parties to eliminate discrimination against women in the enjoyment of civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights. It also requires them to take all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns that foster prejudice, entrench discriminatory practices, crystallize gender roles and ultimately hamper or preclude women from attaining an education and from participating in decision-making, or forces them into stereotyped educational choices.
We know that when a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries on average four years later than a girl without any education. She is more protected from early or forced marriage, and she is likely to have fewer children. This may avert those pregnancy-related complications that are the main cause of death worldwide of girls between 15 and 19.
Some analysts have indicated that if just 10 percent more girls obtained a secondary education, their country’s economy could be expected to grow by three percent. When an educated girl earns an income, she reinvests 90 percent of it in her family. On the other hand, boys invest 35 percent of their income in their families. In short, the absence of women’s equality undermines their fundamental human rights, and also hampers societal development and economic growth.
Women’s participation in decisions that affect their lives and the well-being of their families and communities is an indispensable element of women’s empowerment. Indeed, this goal has been a priority of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women -- the 23-member body established to scrutinize implementation of CEDAW—since the Committee’s inception in 1982. Strategies to eliminate obstacles on women’s path to progress are set out in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. In short, frameworks for accelerating the advancement of women and girls are in place.
Two factors have been critical to attain the international legal and policy framework for the advancement of women. The first was the emergence of a global women’s human rights movement. The second was the determination of the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations to provide a welcoming space for women’s rights activists, a place where they could be creative, claim their rights and thus engineer change. Essential to both these factors was the intellectual leadership provided by feminist scholars, such as Hilary Charlesworth, the late Rhonda Copelon, and Devaki Jain, who reinterpreted fields including international law, international relations and economics from a women’s perspective.
Building on their achievements at the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women, scholars and advocates have worked hard to ensure that the Human Rights Council, the premier United Nations intergovernmental human rights body, keeps the rights of women at its centre.
The Council’s Universal Periodic Review mechanism, which provides for an assessment at regular intervals of the human rights record of all UN Member States, has offered an important new space for civil society’s participation, including women’s human rights activists. I am encouraged to see that many States, which have been reviewed through this process, have made commitments to improve their laws, policies and programmes for women. Also, and more importantly, some States have implemented these commitments, including through withdrawing their reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and passing legislation on violence against women and trafficking. I urge you to take full advantage of this vehicle to convey your concerns and recommendations regarding individual countries.
At its most recent session, as the result of the efforts of committed advocates and scholars within and outside Governments, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing a five member expert working group on discrimination against women in law and practice. This mechanism, which will begin work next year, will provide a further means to address the persistence of discrimination against women, ensuring that this issue is considered regularly at the highest political levels within the United Nations system.
My Office strives to ensure that laws on equal rights become a daily reality in the lives of all women. We focus on the promotion of all women’s human rights, including their economic, social and cultural rights, which are also a means of securing women’s participation in all aspects of governance. We work to combat sexual violence and to bring perpetrators to account. We are persuaded that when violence goes unpunished, abusers are emboldened to strike again. Others are encouraged to emulate their brutality. Rendering justice to the victims is not only a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation without which communal welfare is compromised. I wish to underscore that, in the context of our action to counter discrimination, my Office has identified the right to education as a key focus for the 2010-2011 biennium.
The many field presences of OHCHR focus on ensuring that international laws and policies are applied for the benefit of women at the national level. One strategy is to encourage the development and adoption of national action plans, with time bound targets and effective monitoring mechanisms.
Colleagues and friends,
I would like to conclude by addressing some specific issues pertaining to women in research. Clearly, impediments to the realization of the right to education, as well as other discriminatory practices, affect women’s capacity to enter the field of research and reach its top levels. According to UNESCO, in 2006 women only constituted one-quarter of the world’s researchers, although in many countries such data is missing or not collected. In 2003, less than one-third of the countries queried reported gender parity among university students enrolled in first-degree courses. When looking at research-intensive fields such as science and engineering, only three out of 47 countries attained gender parity.
In the vast majority of countries, men significantly outnumbered women in these fields of study. These figures do not refer to the developing world alone. Indeed, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has consistently remarked on the very low percentage of women professors in the developed world, including in the Nordic countries. This is the case in these and many other countries.
Yet there are proportionally more female second-degree graduates than first-degree graduates and that women who do reach higher education levels perform well and often better than men. Indeed, a lesson that can be generally drawn from these data as well as from our personal observation is that when parents, communities and countries invest in girls’ education, then much more often than not this initial effort pays for itself many times over as girls do the rest.
It is incumbent upon all of us, especially amongst this group of lucky ones, to step up our efforts to work for changes so that all women can claim their entitlement to full social participation, and to all their rights everywhere.