Gender Equality; Empowering Women through Education

Countries have made progress in promoting and protecting women’s rights but important challenges remain in achieving equality, according to a member of a UN expert body that monitors discrimination against women.

Nicole Ameline, vice chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, says access to education is one area for improvement.

She spoke to journalists in New York on Monday following her address to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly.

“Women make up two-thirds of the 774 million adult illiterates in the world. Turning to health, at present every minute a woman dies from pregnancy and childbirth complications.

Violence against women: an issue of ongoing particular concern for the committee, in particular sexual violence, female genital mutilation.

Further, every year, an estimated 10 million girls are married before they reach 18.”

Female education is a catch-all term for a complex of issues and debates surrounding education (primary education, secondary education, tertiary education and health education in particular) for females.

It includes areas of gender equality and access to education, and its connection to the alleviation of poverty.

Also involved are the issues of single-sex education and religious education, in that the division of education along gender lines, and religious teachings on education, have been traditionally dominant, and are still highly relevant in contemporary discussion of female education as a global consideration.

While the feminist movement has certainly promoted the importance of the issues attached to female education, discussion is wide-ranging and by no means confined to narrow terms of reference: it includes for example AIDS.

Universal education, meaning state-provided primary and secondary education independent of gender, is not yet a global norm, even if it is assumed in most developed countries.

Empowering Women through Education

“Education is one of the most important means of empowering women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence necessary to participate fully in the development process.” — ICPD Programme of Action, paragraph 4.2

Education is important for everyone, but it is especially significant for girls and women. This is true not only because education is an entry point to other opportunities, but also because the educational achievements of women can have ripple effects within the family and across generations. Investing in girls’ education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. Investments in secondary school education for girls yields especially high dividends.

Girls who have been educated are likely to marry later and to have smaller and healthier families. Educated women can recognize the importance of health care and know how to seek it for themselves and their children. Education helps girls and women to know their rights and to gain confidence to claim them. However, women’s literacy rates are significantly lower than men’s in most developing countries.

Education has far-reaching effects

The education of parents is linked to their children’s educational attainment, and the mother’s education is usually more influential than the father’s. An educated mother’s greater influence in household negotiations may allow her to secure more resources for her children.

Educated mothers are more likely to be in the labour force, allowing them to pay some of the costs of schooling, and may be more aware of returns to schooling. And educated mothers, averaging fewer children, can concentrate more attention on each child.

Besides having fewer children, mothers with schooling are less likely to have mistimed or unintended births. This has implications for schooling, because poor parents often must choose which of their children to educate.

Closing the gender gap in education is a development priority. The 1994 Cairo Consensus recognized education, especially for women, as a force for social and economic development. Universal completion of primary education was set as a 20-year goal, as was wider access to secondary and higher education among girls and women. Closing the gender gap in education by 2015 is also one of the benchmarks for the Millennium Development Goals.

What UNFPA is doing

UNFPA advocates widely for universal education and has been instrumental in advancing legislation in many countries to reduce gender disparities in schooling. The 2003 UNFPA global survey on ICPD+10 showed that most programme countries formally recognize the important of reducing the gender gap in education between boys and girls.

UNFPA supports a variety of educational programmes, from literacy projects to curricula development with a focus on reproductive and sexual health. Because of the sensitivity of these issues, the focus and names of the educational programmes have gone through a number of changes over the past decades.

Gender issues now receive more attention than they did in past programmes, and instruction methods have changed, from a didactic approach to one emphasizing student participation and communications skills.

In Jamaica, through an alliance with the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation and funding from the European Union, UNFPA supported a programme that enabled thousands of girls to return to school following pregnancies and to acquire technical skills.

In a UNFPA-supported project in Bolivia, women are learning to read in their indigenous language while learning about reproductive health, safe motherhood and health insurance.

In Mali, a literacy project reaches adolescents both in and out of school, with a focus on migrant girls, domestic workers, victims of violence and abuse, and those living on the margins of society.

In Mauritania, UNFPA is collaborating on an educational initiative in four of the poorest regions of the country. The initiative aims to reduce the dropout rate by half and equip at least 5,000 girls with a range skills, from home economics and information technology to environmental preservation.


The Third Committee is where UN member states discuss social, humanitarian and cultural issues.

It is one of five such bodies under the General Assembly, the main deliberative organ of the United Nations.

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