Education International
Education International

Human rights and gender equality in education

published 16 January 2009 updated 16 January 2009

“Financing gender equality is often preached, but scarcely ever practised,” Jan Eastman, EI Deputy General Secretary, told delegates at the last UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Although recent indicators show general progress in expanding women’s capabilities, women’s opportunities in employment and decision-making bodies still lag behind. Unions promoting the empowerment of women are confronted with global challenges: inequity and lack of state funding for education; glaring concerns related to lack of access to food, clean water, sanitation, and health care; as well as the climate change crisis. Unfortunately achievement of an equality agenda is deeply threatened by the global financial crisis. 2008 has revealed the weakness of the current model of globalization. Hundreds of billions of dollars were diverted to bail out banks and financial institutions while at the same time the United Nations Summit on the MDGs only generated $16 billion in commitments to ending poverty. The UN food agency collected only $8 billion for the food crisis, where $15 billion is needed. The same goes for agricultural investment to help small farmers. In the current crisis, governments are even less likely to set aside additional resources to achieve the vital Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) dealing with education for all and empowerment of women. According to the World Bank, the achievement of the MDG3 devoted to gender equality and the empowerment of women requires $13 billion per year and MDG2 to achieve primary education for all requires at least $16 billion. Rich western countries promised, 30 years ago, to devote at least 0.7% of their GDP to foreign aid, but only the Nordic countries and the Netherlands are meeting this commitment. If all developed countries kept their promises, available resources would be doubled and the MDGs could be financed. The financial crisis combined with soaring food prices, and subsequent hunger, particularly in female-headed households, has highlighted the injustice of global poverty and inequality more than ever. The promises need to be followed by all the necessary actions and measures. Does the current scenario bring opportunities for hope? Against this stark reality, teacher organisations continue to adopt policies to enhance participation of women in their leadership and advocate relentlessly for integrated policies to empower girls and women through quality education and decent work. EI considers quality education ­that is universally accessible, free, and compulsory until the age of employment­, and quality public services including water, sanitation, housing, and health care, essential to alleviate poverty and achieve gender equality. Quality education for all girls and women is the first key to breaking the negative cycle of increasing feminisation of poverty, with all its connected human rights abuses. Unless women are educated, they cannot find their voices or be empowered to participate fully in society. The shortage of 18 million teachers to meet the Education For All goal by 2015 is disturbing. Comprehensive state policies for gender equality should include integrated provisions for quality education delivered by trained teachers and decent work. Indeed, the shortage of decent work leads to a downward spiral impacting the weakest, who are most often women. Unemployment, under-employment, unproductive and low-quality jobs, unpredictable earnings, absence of union rights, lack of collective bargaining, exploitation of children and of migrants and refugees, dangerous work: all these factors lead to the erosion of the fundamental social contract that ties together democratic societies. A recent example is Zimbabwe, where the general collapse of the country has also had a devastating impact on the education sector. Teacher organisations work for equality EI and other trade union federations are making sure that women’s rights are protected, respected and fulfilled, and that women are heard within their national unions, regional bodies and international institutions such as International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Many teacher organisations took initiatives to increase the presence of women in their decision making bodies. For example, this year, the Indonesian teacher union PGRI amended its constitution to impose a minimum quota of 30% of women in the top leadership and all decision making bodies of the union. PGRI was inspired by the good practice shared at the EI Women’s Caucus in 2007. Teacher unions also empower women by improving their union skills through the EI regional women networks (see box). In national and international fora, unions urge governments to expand and seek to attract investment through the right policies: spending on education and vocational training, decent work opportunities, good health care, anti-corruption measures, and support to good public services. The opposition strategy of entering a race for capital through reducing labour standards will be at the detriment of the populations and particularly the weakest and poorest. Unions also argue that transparency and accountability of equality policies are critical. This means that all policies include clear gender targets to be set in agreement with women leaders and organisations, inclusive decision making processes, gender-tracking of budgets and implementation practice, as well as gender-just evaluations. There is a need for transformed leadership of men and women, who are fully committed to gender justice. Only then can the negative cycle of feminisation of poverty and exploitation within both education systems and workplaces be reversed. By Rebeca Sevilla

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 28, December 2008.