Education International
Education International

Gender justice is key to real progress

published 25 March 2011 updated 25 March 2011

In 2000 the United Nations’ Millennium Development Summit agreed to eradicate global poverty and save millions of lives through coordinated activity. In 2002, leaders of 189 countries agreed to achieve eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Five years ahead of the deadline, progress has been uneven and the UN has issued a clear warning that many targets will not be met unless promises are kept through more equitable, gender-sensitive and pro-poor policies.

In 2008, more than 1.4 billion people – mostly women and girls – were still living in poverty. In 2009, the global number of unemployed people reached 212 million, while military expenditure was 15 times greater than total aid received by all developing countries. In 2010, more than 64 million people are projected to be in extreme poverty, and progress in social indicators has slowed down since 2000.

EI believes social, political and economic equality for women is integral to achieve all MDGs. This makes it essential to identify and address discrimination, with a focus on the situation of the most marginalised and impoverished ethnic diverse populations living in rural and urban areas. There is a need to address all legal gaps to enforce economic, social and cultural rights which enable meaningful participation by all, including education workers and learners. Guaranteed land rights for women and access to credit will make a difference to local agriculture and food security too.

E-Quality in Education

Investment in good quality, free public services is essential to achieving the MDGs and EI works with the International Trade Union Confederation and Public Services International to advance this agenda.

There is a correlation between poverty, social exclusion and low levels of education because 64 per cent of the world’s illiterate are women (510,577 million) or young (131 million) people. Education is a vital tool in alleviating poverty and discrimination, and building democracy and social cohesion, in the developing world. According to UNIFEM, women control a tiny fraction of the world’s land and comprise more than half of those in vulnerable employment, yet decent work and economic assets remain out of reach for most women.

Girls from ethnic diverse groups such as indigenous, Roma, migrants or refugees, tend to have lower rates of schools enrolment and literacy, but higher dropout rates than boys from ethnic diverse groups, or groups of girls and boys of dominant group. In Ontario, Canada, 31 per cent of Native people living on reserves have no formal education compared with 10 per cent of the non-Native population. In Guatemala, 65 per cent of indigenous women in rural areas lack literacy skills, compared to 38 per cent of non-indigenous women, while 42 per cent of indigenous men cannot read or write, compared to 30 per cent of the rest of the rural male population. Alarmingly, 85 per cent of schools have inadequate space, classrooms and services such as electricity, drinking water and sanitation. Classes are overcrowded with a student-teacher ratio of 31:1.

In many cases indigenous women have higher levels of unemployment or paid less for their labour than both ethnic diverse groups of men, or men and women from the dominant population. The ILO estimates there are 100 million people working in domestic services, a majority of them women or girls aged 11-12, but some as young as seven, who migrate internally and from their home country in search of work. They remain overworked, underpaid and unprotected. Domestic labour is viewed as among the worst forms of child labour, with physical and sexual abuse a daily part of the experience.

If ethnic diverse people became professionals teachers, their experiences of racism are denied, ignored or trivialised. In a study of Aboriginal teachers' knowledge and experience in Canadian schools, teachers reported occasions where their qualifications and capabilities, and Aboriginal content and perspectives were disregarded. There were also lower expectations of Aboriginal students, and a discounting of the effects of colonisation and oppression on Aboriginal people. Institutional responses to racism have been inadequate, leaving the burden for addressing racism to Aboriginal teachers.

The most disadvantaged sections of the workforce: youth, women, migrants and indigenous people among other excluded groups, call for truly inclusive trade unions which respond to their needs.

UN Women

In July, 2010, the UN General Assembly created the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). This body will oversee all UN programmes aimed at promoting women’s rights and their full participation in global affairs. One of its goals will be to support the Commission on the Status of Women and inter-governmental bodies in devise policies.

EI has welcomed the creation of the agency and the election of Chile’s former President, Michelle Bachelet – a liberal, single mother and paediatrician who was imprisoned under Pinochet’s dictatorship – as the first chief of UN Women.

Decent lives for women and girls

The rights and opportunities of women and girls cannot be fulfilled unless the violence and fear they face in daily life is eradicated by the adoption and enforcement of national laws and action plans; increased public awareness among school communities, men and young people; in addition to a systematic address of sexual violence in conflicts and emergency areas. In Europe, migrant women are over-represented among those who access services for victims of gender-based violence, while a Fundamental Rights Agency report reveals that lesbians experience discrimination, bullying and harassment, as well as verbal and physical attacks across the continent.

Education unions are, in some places, at the forefront of preventing violence against women and girls. In 2009, the Cypriot teacher unions (KTOEOS, KTÖS and the United Cyprus Greek Cypriot Teachers' Initiative) organised a Women of Cyprus Demand: Stop Violence! march. The UK’s National Union of Teachers joined a Reclaim the Night march, while NASUWT teachers’ union promoted a White Ribbon Campaign for 25 November, International Day to End Violence Against Women. In Germany, the GEW union informed its members about the importance of education in preventing domestic violence.

On the Move for Equality

EI is organising its First World Women’s Conference in Bangkok from 20-23 January, 2011. The meeting will be preceded by EI’s Women’s Network meetings and will give the opportunity for female leadership of the education trade union movement to become more visible, vibrant and global. Along the years, the education trade union movement has been transformed by the experience of women’s activities, caucus and equality programs. The event will also mark its impact on the agenda of EI’s Sixth World Congress in South Africa, during July 2011.

According to EI Equality Survey to be released at the EI World Women’s Conference, women represent the majority of union members in most regions, yet are under-represented among union leaderships. The evidence shows that the higher the decision-making body, the lower the percentage of women represented. Globally, the percentage of women decreases from 60 per cent of union membership to 50 per cent of conference delegates, and a further 40 per cent of unions’ executive boards.

EI’s‘On The Move For Equality’ conference in Bangkok is a major opportunity for women to discuss common lines of action, to go back home with many experiences and knowledge to share and make concrete demands of their unions and governments. Equality for women and girls is a basic human right, it is also a socio-economic imperative to progress Education for All, the MDGs, and the Beijing Plan of Action.

By Rebeca Sevilla

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 36, December 2010.