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Two students from a pastoralist community in the Afar region of Ethiopia attend an Alternative Base Education Centre (UNICEF/Jiro Ose).

Seizing the moment for gender equality in education: what we learned from CSW62

By Sarah Winfield, UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI)

The 62nd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) took place against a backdrop of widespread activism as people of all walks come forward to break the silence around sexual violence and hold perpetrators to account. Simmering for decades, even centuries, the #MeToo movement is born of a real and potent sense of outrage at the injustices women endure daily, accompanied by a clarion call for the CSW vision of gender equality and women’s empowerment. But how do we seize the moment to bring about real and lasting change for women and girls? And what role can education play in achieving this?

The focus on women and girls in rural areas at this year’s CSW placed a welcome spotlight on those at the extreme margins of society whose voices rarely receive the hearing of Hollywood stars — the women and girls least likely to have access to education, health care or economic opportunities. Following an intensive week and a half of discussions covering all aspects of the gender agenda, we noted three broad directives from participants on how best to accelerate the drive for equality and tackle the particular barriers that rural women and girls face. At the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), our mandate focuses on gender equality in and through education, and it is through this lens that we share our learnings.

1. Adopt a partnership approach that puts girls centre stage

Violence against women and girls is rooted in gender inequality and takes many forms that often continue through the life course, from school-related gender-based violence, FGM/C, and child marriage to domestic violence and rape. For girls, lack of access to quality education and thus decent work can perpetuate the abuse of their human rights across generations. Although so many of the issues they face escalate during the teenage years and continue through adulthood, too often, adolescent girls fall between the dominant agendas of children’s and women’s rights.

Classmates discuss issues and share thoughts at a girls’ club meeting in the Oromia region of northern Ethiopia (UNICEF/Jiro Ose).

At the launch of Plan International’s Girls’ Rights Platform, CEO Anne-Brigitte Albrectsen noted that girls are rarely mentioned in international law, but are instead subsumed by the ageless categories of ‘women’ or gender-neutral ‘children’, ‘adolescents’ and ‘youth’. And where girls are singled out, there is a failure to reflect the particular barriers they face. To break the cycle of gender inequality and its many negative expressions, CSW contributors repeatedly stressed the importance of a cross-cutting, multisectoral, partnership approach that prioritises girls’ needs and rights. For girls to be empowered to fulfil their potential, a common agenda with mutually reinforcing programmes and agreed progress measures is urgently needed.

2. To challenge gender norms start with education

To promote gender equality, deep-rooted gender norms that influence the way girls and boys are raised, learn and interact, and shape their identity, beliefs and behaviours need to be addressed. In the context of education, gender stereotypes can be embedded in textbooks and curricula, reinforced by messages conveyed in other aspects of schooling and sustained by attitudes in the home. In many families, the burden of unpaid domestic work falls disproportionately on girls’ shoulders, perpetuating gender inequality, limiting girls’ academic potential, and leading to poorer employment prospects in the long term. Without role models and mentors, too often girls internalise these norms and are unable to imagine or aspire to alternative pathways.

School textbooks can shape students’ perceptions of gender norms. Young people interpret what is presented through curricula in the light of their wider social and economic context (UNICEF/Adam Ferguson).

“The groundswell has to come from the grassroots” — Molly Melching, Tostan

Education can play a critical role in challenging gender norms, and several common approaches emerged across CSW panel events. Within the classroom, life skills programmes can expose young people to new ideas, challenge existing ones and provide opportunities to discuss norms, beliefs and behaviours in a safe space. Breakthrough India’s Taaron Ki Toli programme was highlighted as one example of an initiative that has been effective in improving gender attitudes, especially among boys. A supportive learning environment is also critical for increasing girls’ self-efficacy, while vocational training programmes can widen their outlook and opportunities. Outside the classroom, community-based dialogue can encourage community members to examine beliefs and consider alternative ideas, potentially leading to shifts in attitudes and behaviours. As Tostan’s Molly Melching observed, to effect real and lasting change, “The groundswell has to come from the grassroots.”

3. Empowerment means creating the conditions for communities to lead

The empowerment of rural women and girls was enshrined in the theme of this year’s CSW. Yet many contributors challenged the traditional concept of empowerment in which the powerless are empowered by the powerful. Instead, a notion that conveys the idea of creating the conditions in which women can be empowered was advocated. Purna Sen of UN Women observed that for this to be realised, “We [the powerful] have to give up our seats at the table and have other people making the decisions that affect their lives directly.” At UNGEI, we believe that education has the potential to provide girls and boys with the support they need to ask questions and claim their own voice. A critical first step is for teachers to recognise the norms and values they reinforce in the classroom and promote a gender positive environment.

“We can’t import solutions into communities; we have to allow communities to lead” — Jaha Dukureh, Safe Hands for Girls

Teenagers raise issues of education, child marriage and vocational skills to village elders in the Giridih district of northern India (UNICEF/Prashanth Vishwanathan).

To accelerate the progress needed for women to achieve their social, economic and political rights, many participants spoke of the need for rural women to come together and lead the movement. Jaha Dukureh, founder of Safe Hands for Girls, articulated a widely held consensus when she stated, “We can’t import solutions into communities; we have to allow communities to lead. And to know that young people… are more than capable of leading those solutions in their own communities.” For this to happen, fundamental shifts in power and the resourcing of rural women’s organisations need to take place at local, national and global level.

The challenges facing rural women and girls are immense, but, in the wake of this growing movement for gender justice, so too are the opportunities. During this year’s CSW, the rights of girls, as well as women, were given more space and prominence than ever before. A new (or renewed) recognition of the potential role of education in empowering women and girls, and thus transforming society, was widely articulated. Across the world, the hunger for change is palpable. We must seize the moment.

This blog was first posted on the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) website. UNGEI is a partnership of organisations committed to gender equality in education and the empowerment of girls. To find out more about our work, visit our website and sign up to our newsletter.

Teenagers listen intently as a community leader from the Sunamganj District of Bangladesh shares information about health giving sanitation practices. This community-led group is one of seventy formed across the district to tackle issues that young people face (UNICEF/Jannatul Mawa).



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