I thank the delegation of the United Arab Emirates for organising this panel, and I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Council on a topic that is of deep importance to me, and to our world. The empowerment of women has been among the most significant achievements of the past century. Women have stepped forward to lead, to choose, and to drive change. Today's young girls – like my own daughters – have role models: strong, admirable figures who have overturned the old vision of women as confined to the domestic sphere.
Many brave women fought this battle across the world, and a few men, too. But it could not have been achieved without education.
Access to education is the key that unlocks many kinds of achievements and choices. It is a right in itself, but also a multiplier right. Empowered by education – an education of quality, which stimulates curiosity, sharpens critical skills, and builds competence – girls can grow up to deploy their skills. They can make choices about their health, work and personal life. And they will be more able to fight successfully for the full range of their human rights, including the right to fully participate in the decisions that shape society.
In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize last year, 17 year-old Malala Yousafzai told us, "We had a thirst for education, because our future was right there, in that classroom. We wanted to make our parents proud, and prove that we could excel in our studies, and achieve things – which some people think only boys can." I think all of us can recognize in that description the thrill of knowledge, and the confidence in skill, which education can bring.
In recent years there has been considerable progress regarding girls' education: MDG3 has been among the most successful of the Millennium Development Goals. This is a tremendous force for social change. As education expands girls' horizons, opens up better earning opportunities, and improves women’s position in the family and society, it brings strong benefits to the entire community: greater social stability, better health outcomes across generations, and a surge of economic growth. According to the Statistics on Women study of 174 States, the best predictor of a country's peacefulness is not its wealth or political structure, nor its ethnic or religious makeup; it is the well-being and education of women and girls.
Investing in girls' education is not only the right thing to do: it is also the smart thing to do. I need only look at the women Ambassadors and delegates in this room to see the power of women's leadership, and the impact of education on entire societies.
And yet restrictions, violence and injustices continue to blight the lives of millions of women and girls. These are an affront to every principle of human rights. To enable women and girls to overcome discrimination and constraints; to at last empower them to raise their voices, and participate fully in society; we must push further in our struggle to fully realise the right to education – to a good education that is grounded in non-discrimination and human rights.
Almost one-third of countries today still have not achieved parity in primary education.
Less than half see as many girls as boys in lower-secondary grades. In several countries, education is far from being a zone of gender-sensitivity and safety; a shocking number of girls face sexual violence and harassment inside schools, and on their way to schools. One-third of girls in developing countries are married before they’re 18, and millions give birth while they are still in their teens; most of these young women are prevented from continuing their education. Girls also continue to be corralled into specific fields of study – which often are not those in high demand on the labour market.
Extremist movements target girls who seek to go to school because of the power of girls' education to spark and sustain social, cultural, economic and political change. As my Office reported in its recent Paper on attacks against girls seeking to access education, between 2009 and 2014 thousands of attacks on schools took place, in at least 70 different countries – and many of them were aimed at girls and teachers for advocating girls’ education. Girls have been poisoned, killed, abducted, sexually attacked, and maimed, including with acid, and many others have been threatened and forced to withdraw from formal schooling. These vicious and cowardly attacks are an extreme expression of movements that are deeply resistant to women’s equal rights.
We must free girls and women from the discrimination that is so deeply etched in many societies, in order that they can deploy the skills they have learned. A ceiling – sometimes invisible, often obvious – denies women the opportunity to climb up the ladder. Young women, even when well-educated, consistently suffer higher unemployment rates than men, work in more precarious jobs, and are paid less for work of equal value. It is a disservice to young women, and a waste of vital talents, when we enable them to obtain qualifications and then deny them the right to pursue their aspirations in full equality with men.
Stubborn stereotypes such as the notion that women's sexuality needs to be "controlled" by others, or that women are more "caring" than men, have profound impact on girls' health, self-confidence, subjection to violence, and every other aspect of their human rights. To achieve the fundamental principle of equality between men and women that was inscribed 70 years ago on the very first page of the Charter of our United Nations, we need to dismantle these damaging views and expectations, which prevent human beings from realising their full potential.
In addition to academic achievements, education must equip students with the tools to critically analyse and challenge rigid gender roles that limit choices and perpetuate women’s subordination. For if specific qualities and attributes continue to be associated only with women– and to be less valued – girls will continue to be constrained in tightly limited roles, with negative consequences for all.
In cultures that value obedience above all, women are usually required to be the most obedient of all. But human progress, innovation and development do not come from societies that impose submission. They spring from self-expression, free exchanges of ideas, the flash of criticism and the clang of argument. And in all those elements, women must play a central role. No society can realise its potential for progress if it holds half its people back.
Girls' education is a first step. It has the potential to shift mindsets, move societies and improve the lives of millions. Every State should take urgent measures to ensure that all girls can effectively and safely access education of quality, including teaching about human rights. With an education of this nature, in line with human rights standards, future generations will be equipped to build and maintain societies based on equality and justice for all. As we advance towards a new agenda for development world-wide, we know that it can bring real hope for massive improvements in the lives of millions. But if we fail to advance the education of girls, and the human rights of all women, we will have failed this challenge, for generations to come.