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Address by Ms. Kyung-wha Kang, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to the 14th session of the Human Rights Council - Annual full-day discussion on Women’s Human Rights, “Empowering Women through Education”

Geneva, 7 June 2010

Mr. President,
Distinguished Panellists,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be with you today at this annual session of the Human Rights Council on human rights of women, which has been prepared to discuss the important topic of the empowerment of women through education.  Gender discrimination is an ongoing priority for OHCHR, and the right to education is a key focus that cuts across our work on discrimination during the 2010-2011 biennium.   So I am very pleased that the Council has decided to give this issue focused attention, and I am sure that today’s discussions will greatly enrich our thinking on the importance of education to achieving gender equality and our  action to bring greater, better educational opportunities to women and girls around the world. 

Mr. President,

There are probably very few women among us today who have not had the benefit of receiving primary, secondary, and higher education.  I am also sure that there is no parent in the room, who does not prioritize their children’s schooling and who would not be mortified if for any reason, their child’s education be interrupted.  I am sure this applies for both boys and girls.   

We instinctively know that a girl without a solid education has limited opportunities and often finds herself in situations of vulnerabilities throughout life.   But that is precisely the case with too many young girls around the world.  Of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth today, 70 per cent are girls.  Meanwhile, when a girl is educated, the benefits are truly life-changing.  It has been shown 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 an 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 more likely to avert pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. They also become the driving force for socio-economic development.  By some analysis, if just 20 percent of more girls were allowed to obtain secondary education, a country’s economy can be expected to grow by three percent.  When an educated girl earns an income, she reinvests 90 percent of it in her family, compared to 35 percent for boys.   

Sadly, the reality is the opposite.  On telling fact is that the main cause of death for 15-19 year old girls worldwide is precisely pregnancy and child-birth related complications. They are part of the statistics of a staggering number of hundreds of thousands of women and girls who are lost each year during pregnancy and childbirth,   and millions more become disabled.  Women’s low rates of literacy and education correlate strongly to high rates of maternal mortality and  other indicators of maternal health, including fertilization rate, utilization of prenatal care,  contraception, and age at first birth. 

Many low-cost health interventions can substantially reduce maternal death and disability.  But lack of education limits women’s knowledge of nutrition, birth spacing and contraception.  Furthermore, in some countries, the 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.

Mr. President,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The right to education is set out in numerous international human rights instruments at the global and regional levels, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Under international human rights law, states must ensure free and compulsory primary education to all school-aged children as a matter of priority, and must increase access to secondary, technical, vocational and higher education.  Furthermore, the educational curricula should accord with human rights principles. This includes fostering diversity, understanding and gender equality.  

In meeting these obligations, in the first instance, all states must prioritize free and compulsory primary education. Yet many young girls, particularly the poor, do not even receive primary education.  At the current rate of progress, the Millennium Development Goal No. 3 to eliminate the gender disparity between girls and boys in primary education is unlikely to be achieved. 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.   Girls have been the first to be withdrawn from school in order to help their families cope with economic hardship.

Mr. President,

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.  Odious in times of peace, these discriminatory patterns inflict a disproportionate toll on women in times of armed conflicts and economic hard times and expose them to massive human rights abuses, including sexual violence.

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). The Convention aims at eliminating discrimination in the field of education, particularly in vocational training and higher education, as well as stereotyped educational choices.  Indeed, access to education has proven to have a “cascading effect” as it empowers women to empower other women.

Yet the persistence of entrenched traditional attitudes continues to hold women and girls back in education, depriving them of the skills and knowledge to access the labour market, decision-making and participation in political and public life.   As a result, women represent only a small fraction of elected officials in most countries. Today only 25 countries have more than 30 per cent female representatives in parliament.  Even fewer women are in leadership positions in politics or occupy executive positions in business, trade unions, higher education, local government, the judiciary or the military.  

Mr. President,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Education is a human right in itself which no one, no child should be deprived of.   It is also the surest way to individual advancement and empowerment as well as to social progress.   To see the joyful expression found in the eyes of a child at the moment of learning something new, curiosity being answered,  understanding what was previously incomprehensive is an exhilarating confirmation of  human dignity that is inherent to all.   No girl should continue to be deprived of this.  Invest in their education, and they will not only take care of themselves, but also take care of their families and societies.  

As duty-bearers, States have the primary obligation to ensure the right to education for all, including the responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil this right for all.  Yet all stakeholders should reflect on how their various roles can contribute to realizing the right to education for women and girls.  

I hope our deliberation today will lead to redoubling the resolve and efforts world-wide to strengthen gender equality in the education sector and to give women and girls, men and boys equal opportunities to realize their right to education.  This, I firmly believe, is the surest investment for our peaceful and prosperous future.     

Thank you.