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Statement by Ms. Kyung-wha Kang Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at the annual meeting of the International Federation of University Women

México City, 5 August 2010

President Croot, Dr. Galeana, Minister Sanchez Cordero, Dr. Perez, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues,

It gives me great pleasure and honor to participate in the 30th Triennial Conference of the International Federation of University Women (IFUW).  As a proud member of the Korean Federation of University Women, and being very happy to see many of my friends from Korea participating in this conference, let me join all of you in celebrating the 90th birthday of IFUW this year.    I thank the organizers for the invitation, and for giving me the opportunity to present the human rights angle to the Conference theme of “Education, Empowerment and Development”. 

Human rights is one of the three pillars of the United Nations, along with peace and security and development.  It is also the normative foundation for all the diverse areas of work of the UN system.  The High Commissioner for Human Rights and her Office (OHCHR) is the lead entity in the system for the promotion and protection of all human rights for all.  Equality and non-discrimination is at the very core of OHCHR’s work, both as a fundamental principle as well as a goal that we aspire to help countries and peoples around the world achieve in their daily lives.   

Throughout our work, we have come to promote education, not only as a right in itself but also a vital tool in the fight against discrimination.  In this biennium 2010-2011 in particular, education is a key focus of our work against discrimination, and we are promoting human rights education aimed at building a universal culture of human rights.   So, I would like to use this opportunity to elaborate upon the importance of education, and the centrality of the right to education in achieving women’s empowerment and development and gender equality.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Human rights are something that all human beings should have, just for being born a human being.  In operational terms, they are an entitlement that a government that has been charged to run a country and care for its people has a duty to provide.   The Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts with these words: all human being are born free and equal, in dignity and rights, and it goes on to proclaim in 30 articles what those rights are.  The endeavors of the UN human rights machinery in the 60 years since then have largely been to elaborate these rights in binding as well as nonbinding norms, and to set up mechanisms to push for their implementation on the ground.

 The right to education is set out in numerous international human right instruments at the global and regional levels, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Article 26 states that education is a human right, and the world has embraced this dictum without question.  Under international human rights law, States must ensure free and compulsory primary education to all school aged children and provide equal access to secondary, technical, vocational and higher education.  Furthermore, the curricula should correspond with human rights principles fostering diversity, understanding and gender equality.

Education is not only a right in itself, but is also the surest way to empower individuals so that they can enjoy all of their human rights. Education paves the way out of poverty and disempowerment, and opens up access to participation in society and in political decision-making.  Thus, 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, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth and economic or other status.

Sadly, the reality for millions of girls and boys around the world falls way behind these normative aspirations.  Many countries are not on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2 to achieve universal primary education. The target is to ensure that by 2015 children everywhere will be able to complete a full course of primary school. Yet according to UNICEF estimates, the number of children who are out of school is somewhere between 70 to a 100 million. Seventy per cent of these are girls.  For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, almost 12 million girls may never enrol in school.

Many young girls, particularly the poor, do not even receive primaryeducation.  At the current rate of progress, universal primary education will not be achieved by 2015, as will be the case for the MDG No. 3 to eliminate the gender disparity between girls and boys in primary education.  Indeed, the recent financial and economic crises and their effects on the well-being of girls in many countries have rendered gender equality, including in access to education, further removed from reality.  All too often girls have been the first to be withdrawn from school in order to help their families cope with economic hardship.

This is an unacceptable tragedy, more so in light of the clear evidence of the remarkable impact that basic education can have on a girl’s life.  When a girl in the developing world receives seven years or more 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 her education contributes to reducing HIV/AIDS in her country.  She is likely to have, at least, two less children in her lifetime and be more likely to avert pregnancy and childbirth-related complications and deaths.   This positive correlation stands in stark contrast to the grim fact that the main cause of death for 15-19 year old girls worldwide is pregnancy and childbirth-related complications.  They are part of the statistics of a staggering half a million deaths of women and girls who are lost each year during pregnancy and childbirth, with millions more becoming disabled.  Most of these deaths are preventable. 

Women’s education is strongly associated with having fewer children, and a greater likelihood that children will be sent to school.  Lack of education limits women’s knowledge of nutrition, birth spacing and contraception.  Furthermore, a woman’s level of education is found to be a key determinant of quality of care, with less educated women facing greater discrimination in access to health-care facilities.  Improvements in maternal health (MDG #5) will in turn make a significant contribution to a nation’s economic growth and help reduce poverty, malnutrition and children mortality (MDG #4) because when a mother dies, cycles of poverty are aggravated causing generations of suffering and despair.

Investing in women and girls provides the answer to achieving the MDGs as educated girls become the driving force for socio-economic development and the investment in them will have multiplier effects across all the Goals.  When girls are allowed to obtain a secondary education, a country’s economy growth improves through women’s increased labor force participation, productivity and earnings (MDG #1 – poverty reduction).  It has been found that when an educated girl earns an income, she reinvests 90 per cent of it in her family, compared to boys who devote 35 per cent of their income to their families. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The realization of the right to education is essential to women being able to enjoy their full range of human rights.  Women’s exclusion from education and participation intersect with other problems, such as discriminatory patterns in ownership and exploitation of land, dispossession and forced eviction, and the right to inheritance.  These discriminatory patterns inflict a disproportionate toll on women in times of conflict, and expose them to massive human rights abuses, including sexual violence.  Victims are often indigenous and minority women, as indicated in the work of the Human Rights Council’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous peoples and the Forum on Minority issues, both of which have recently issued advice and recommendations on the right to education.

To achieve full equality in law and practice, it is vital to apply the principles and standards enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).  Its Article 10 aims at eliminating discrimination in the field of education, including in vocational training and higher education, as well as stereotyped educational choices. 

States have the primary obligation to implement the Convention, but all stakeholders should reflect on how we in our various roles can actively contribute.  It is heartening that the world is focusing on getting girls in schools, helping and inspiring girls and young women to get the education to which they are entitled.   Recently, UNICEF has recommitted itself to the imperatives of the girls’ education agenda and revised its gender policy.   

Institutional, cultural and economic barriers that prevent girls from attending school need to be addressed, including the promotion of safe schools for girls, with separate water and sanitation facilities. Eleven per cent more girls attend school when water and sanitation facilities are available.  Menstruating girls suffer particular hardships, they need to lock doors, require water and sanitation facilities and generally suffer shame from public knowledge of their menstruation. This leads them to missing out on school and they will drop out if they miss too much school.  Similarly, girls who fall pregnant should never be automatically expelled from school.

Of course, just getting and keeping girls in school is not enough.  These endeavors must go hand in hand with efforts to improve the quality of education, policies and practices with a renewed focus on poverty reduction, women´s advancement and gender equality in the labor market and political decision-making, and putting an end to gender-based violence.

Mexico is a case in point.  With 14.2% of boys and 14.5% of girls of school age out of school according to the latest statistics, Mexico is well on its way to achieving DCG#2 of universal access to primary education by 2015.   However, there are indicators that paint a somber reality for women.  Women earn only 54% of what men earn for equal work; maternal mortality rate remains high with 60 deaths for every 100,000 child births; femicide continues with 430 cases registered during the first half of this year alone, and 7 out of 10 women of 15 years or older reporting that they have experienced some form of violence, either physical or psychological.   Clearly, enrollment of girls in schools alone is not enough.  But it is a prerequisite.
In the first instance, governments must ensure that education is provided in a safe learning environment.  Education is a crucial preventative factor to violence against women, but, alarmingly it is also true that violence, including sexual violence, in and around educational institutions is all too common around the world, and one of the most common places for sexual harassment for girls is in schools. Another irony is that higher education may increase women’s chances of experiencing violence because of their new found empowerment and the challenge this might pose to some men.  In this regard, the education of men is a vital element in combating gender inequality. Teachers play a critical role as gender roles and stereotypes are cemented in schools and education needs to provide boys and girls with a voice to overcome and break cycles of violence.

There are only five years left to 2015 so efforts to achieve the MDGs need to be accelerated.  This year, in September 2010, a high level summit at the UN in New York will review progress made towards the MDGs.  It will be an important event in the efforts towards achieving gender equality.  It coincides with the 15th Anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, and the world will expect the Summit to have a sharp focus on implementing the commitments on universal education, gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Work takes me and my colleagues in OHCHR to many corners of the world where human rights are being violated, fellow human beings are suffering, and governments and other duty bearers must be reminded of their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of people that come under their jurisdiction.   There are powerful memories that have stuck in my mind from these travels.  They are not of meetings with high-level officials, or even with the most passionate of civil society actors.   Rather, they are the moments of encounters with the victims. 

One, in particular, continues to serve as my guiding torch.  It is of the bright eyes of three small girls in a sprawling camp for Somali refugees at the northern border of Kenya.  Despite the dismal conditions of the overcrowded camp, despite the lack of any hope of going back home to a normal life any time soon, sitting in the front row of a make-shift school tent with other children, boys and girls, their faces were full of curiosity and excitement at their minds being challenged for the first time, as they had never been to school before.  They were beaming with joy in the most destitute of conditions.   They were a powerful reminder that learning and education is indeed a right that all should be able to enjoy.  No one, no girl should be deprived of it.   

That was many years ago, and I suspect the girls and their families are still struggling with camp life.   But I earnestly hope that they have kept up with the schooling, that learning has served to preserve their human dignity in the midst of undignified living circumstances, and that the knowledge and skills they have gained will empower them so that they may become active participants in the peace, reconstruction and development of their war-torn country someday soon.   

Distinguished participants, friends and colleagues, 

We have gathered here from around the world today, as women who have had the benefit of receiving primary, secondary and higher education.  Indeed, we are here today because of the benefits that education has given us.  So, today, I hope we can all reaffirm our collective will and aspire to address the unequal status of women in all parts of the world, both in our professional and private lives.  And it all begins with helping young girls and women, near and far, to claim their right to education.

Thank you.