Perspective

Perspective: Education: The Right of Every Girl and Boy

Philosophers have a phrase — "enlightened self-interest" — which they apply to those situations where choosing the less obvious or even slightly more painful course makes us much better off in the long run.

We all face choices like this each day. Is it better to skip a tasty sweet and thus save money and prevent cavities in our teeth? What about purchasing a shiny new sports car instead of saving for retirement?

Governments and societies face similar choices. Do we spend on the army or agriculture (the old "guns or butter" dilemma)? In developing societies, where resources are especially short, the choices are even more difficult.

There is perhaps no better example of "enlightened self-interest" in the world today than the education of children. By every measure, every study, and every rational thought process, the investment made today in the education of girls and boys pays dividends that will last far into the future — and make the world a much better place.

Yet, according to UNICEF's latest "State of the World's Children" for 2004, some 121 million children receive little or no schooling.

This is a hard fact to reckon with, given not only the overall social benefits of education, but also the understanding that education is a basic human right.

The right to education is outlined in some of our most important and fundamental human rights agreements, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These and other treaties obligate governments to ensure that education is available, accessible, acceptable, and adaptable.

Education is not only a fundamental right, it also underpins the exercise of all other human rights. For without literacy and a basic education, how can people even be aware of their rights?

There is another important aspect to this picture: the gap between the education of boys and girls. According to UNICEF, of those 121 million children who receive little or no schooling, some 65 million — the majority — are girls. The so-called "gender gap" varies greatly from country to country, and so this statistic does not tell the entire problem. In Africa, and in some countries in Asia, the gap is much larger, hitting 20 percent in some cases.

Yet, it is through the education of girls that society's "enlightened self-interest" really comes through. For when the investment is made to educate girls, a number of significant benefits emerge.

These points are made in the UNICEF report. It says that when girls are educated, they are themselves as mothers more likely to send their own children to school. When girls are educated, their families are healthier and less likely to be poor. And when girls are educated, they are less likely to be drawn into exploitative work outside the home, or face sexual abuse or violence.

The Bahá'í International Community has long recognized the importance of educating girls. In its statements to the United Nations, the Community has advocated giving girls a priority in education — pointing out that by educating girls, future mothers are better equipped to educate both girls and boys in the next generation.

This understanding, which the new UNICEF report now presents as a matter of common sense, was stated in the Bahá'í writings more than 90 years ago. 'Abdu'l-Bahá said: "[T]he education of women is of greater importance than the education of men, for they are the mothers of the race, and mothers rear the children. The first teachers of children are the mothers. Therefore, they must be capably trained in order to educate both sons and daughters."

Of course, in the best of all possible worlds, everyone — girls and boys — would get the best possible education. But because of the gap in the educational opportunities presented to girls — and because of the long history of oppression against women and girls in general — it is important to reflect on the special importance of the girl child.

We must stop and ask ourselves: why do we not educate more girls? Why is the gap so large? What is holding us back from pursuing our enlightened self-interest? In other words, what is the gleaming bit of candy that diverts us from pursuing the best course?

UNICEF gives a number of reasons. The key issue is the failure of societies to allocate enough resources to education in general. As a result, when choices are made, girls are often left out. As well, policy makers, educators, and families simply don't understand the critical importance of educating girls in terms of society's overall development and/or their own family's best interest.

But these answers only scratch the surface. The reason girls are left out when such choices have to be made is, in fact, because of the underlying discrimination against women and girls that persists in many societies (some would say in every society).

Here, in India, one only need look at the practice of fetal selection to find just one example of the depth and persistence of discrimination against women. But almost every society faces similar inequalities at some level.

Education for all — and especially for girls — is not only a human right — it is also in the best interests of society as a whole. It is, indeed, perhaps the single best development strategy we have.

We must remember, however, that access to free education alone is insufficient to keep girls in school. What girls can do with their schooling determines the attractiveness of it. If women cannot be employed or self-employed, own land, open a bank account, or get a bank loan, if they are denied freedom to marry or not to marry, or if they are deprived of political representation, education alone will have little effect on their plight. The principle of the indivisibility of human rights necessitates looking at education in relation to all other rights and freedoms.

Yet, despite the signing of numerous international documents on human rights over the years, and the millions — if not billions — of dollars in international funding, much remains to be done to ensure education for all.

We must, then, look deep inside ourselves and ask what are the real barriers that prevent the advancement of women and the proper and just education of girls.

On this score, we must examine those social and cultural issues that have, traditionally and historically, led the majority of people to value men and their contributions to society over women and their contributions.

It is these traditions and cultural factors that are that shiny bit of candy or gleaming sports car that prevent us from seeing our own best long-term interest.

In some societies, for example, families see boys as future farm workers (and/or parental caretakers) — and so they value them more than girls. But the reality is that in our globalizing, information-based society, it is brain and not brawn that more reliably ensures a family's long-term prosperity.

On a societal level, too, boys are also often viewed as future leaders — and so more deserving of education. This is, of course, a warped view in which discrimination folds back on itself. Women are certainly equally capable of leading. In any event, however, studies show that even when boys become the leaders, they are better leaders if their mothers were better educated.

When you think about it, the idea of enlightened self-interest stems from what is essentially a spiritual faculty. The phrase itself stems from the word enlightenment — which invokes that power of vision that enables the human mind to see the future and imagine things in a different way, and then to act so as to bring about that transformation.

Again, the Bahá'í sacred writings state: "The world of humanity has two wings — one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be."

It is through the power of spiritual insight and inspiration that we can reach deep into the roots of those wrong-headed and illusory ideas about women's inequality that prevent us as families and societies from achieving our full potential.

Only then can we collectively learn to see beyond those prejudices and traditions that have led us to shortchange girls. Only then can we collectively realize the long-term benefits that will come from providing all children with an equal and quality education.

[Editor's note: The following Perspective editorial is adapted from an address delivered by Bani Dugal, the Principal Representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations, on 17 December 2003 at the "Education: The Right of Every Girl and Boy" conference, New Delhi. See below for the full speech.]


South Asia Regional Conference
Education: The Right of Every Girl and Boy
17-19 December 2003

Inaugural Event Address by Bani Dugal

Principal Representative
Baha'i International Community
United Nations Office 

Philosophers have a phrase — "enlightened self-interest" — which they apply to those situations where choosing the less obvious or even slightly more painful course makes us much better off in the long run.

We all face choices like this each day. Is it better to skip a tasty sweet and thus save money and prevent cavities in our teeth? What about purchasing a shiny new sports car instead of saving for retirement?

Governments and societies face similar choices. Do we spend on the army or agriculture (the old "guns or butter" dilemma)? In developing societies, where resources are especially short, the choices are even more difficult. But the essential question remains: what kind of investment will create the best future for everyone?

There is perhaps no better example of "enlightened" self-interest in the world today than the education of children. By every measure, every study, and every rational thought process, the investment made today in the education of girls and boys pays dividends that will last far into the future — and make the world a much better place.

Yet, according to UNICEF's latest "State of the World's Children" for 2004, which was released last week, some 121 million children receive little or no school.

This is a hard fact to reckon with, given not only the overall social benefits of education, but also widely acknowledged understanding that education is a basic human right. And when talking about the right to education it is important to acknowledge that no right could exist without corresponding government obligations.

International human rights law is best visualized as a network of different treaties whereby governments explicitly accept specific human rights obligations. The obligations relate to human rights as a whole, involving the need to act and react, pursue specific conduct and achieve a particular result.

The right to education is outlined in some of our most important and fundamental human rights agreements, from the — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These and other treaties obligate governments to ensure that education is available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable.

Availability embodies two different government obligations: the right to education as a civil and political right requiring governments to permit the establishment of schools, while the right to education as an economic, and cultural right requires the government to ensure that free and compulsory education is available to all school age children. Access is defined differently for different levels of education. The government is obliged to secure access to free education for all children in the compulsory education age range, primary and often secondary school age but not for higher education. While the government is not necessarily the only investor in education, international human rights law obliges it to be the investor of last resort. Acceptability requires a guaranteed quality of education and professional requirements for teachers. Adaptability requires schools to adapt to children, following the yardstick of the best interests of each child in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This change reversed the heritage of forcing children to adapt to whatever schools may have been made available to them. As human rights are indivisible, adaptability requires safeguards for all human rights within the education as well as enhancing human rights through education.

Education is not only a fundamental right, it also underpins the exercise of all other human rights. For without literacy and a basic education, how can someone even be aware of their rights?

Yet, as noted, some 121 million children are currently deprived of this right. But there is another important aspect to this picture: the gap between the education of boys and girls.

According to UNICEF, of those 121 million, some 65 million — the majority — are girls. The so-called "gender gap" varies greatly from country to country, and so this statistic does not tell the entire problem. In Africa, in some countries in Asia, the gap is much larger, hitting 20 percent in some cases.

Yet, it is through the education of girls that society's "enlightened self-interest" really comes through. For when the investment is made to educate girls, a number of significant benefits emerge.

These points are made in the UNICEF report. It says that when girls are educated, they are themselves as mothers more likely to send their own children to school. When girls are educated, their families are healthier and less likely to be poor. And when girls are educated, they are less likely to be drawn into exploitive work outside the home, or face sexual abuse or violence.

The Baha'i International Community has long recognized the importance of educating girls. Since the beginning, in its statements to the United Nations, the Community has advocated giving girls a priority in education — pointing out that by educating girls, future mothers are better equipped to educate both girls and boys in the next generation.

This understanding, which the new UNICEF report now presents as a matter of common sense, comes from the Baha'i sacred writings. Some 90 years ago, 'Abdu'l-Bah� said: "[T]he education of women is of greater importance than the education of men, for they are the mothers of the race, and mothers rear the children. The first teachers of children are the mothers. Therefore, they must be capably trained in order to educate both sons and daughters."

Of course, in the best of all possible worlds, everyone — girls and boys — would get the best possible education. But because of the gap in the educational opportunities presented to girls — and because of the long history of oppression against women and girls in human society in general — it is important to reflect on the special importance of the girl child.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women — another important international treaty — explicitly identifies the right of girls to have equality in education with boys.

This conference in New Delhi this week will emphasize the need for 'quality' education and 'equality' in education, leaving no child out, especially girls.

The quality of the education is of paramount importance. In addition to basic literacy and numeracy, daily instruction should include ethics education, respect for diversity, education for peace and security and global citizenship, community development and basic life skills. Quality of the education is particularly important in the challenge of closing the gender gap in basic education. Girls in particular face discrimination and challenging circumstances that keep them out of school and hinder their learning effectively.

Discussion of "equality" in education is just what it sounds like: ensuring that both sexes are treated equally.

On this point, we must stop and ask ourselves: why do we not educate more girls? Why is the gap so large? What is holding us back from pursuing our enlightened self-interest? In other words, what is the gleaming bit of candy that diverts us from pursuing the best course?

UNICEF gives a number of reasons. The key issue is the failure of societies to allocate enough resources to education in general. As a result, when choices are made, girls are too often left out. Much of the problem, the report says, is that policy makers, educators, and families simply don't understand the critical importance of educating girls in terms of society's overall development and/or their own family's best interest.

However, that answer only scratches the surface. The reason girls are left out when such choices have to be made is, in fact, because of the underlying discrimination against women and girls that persists in many societies (some would say in every society).

Such discrimination has been well documented. Here, in India, one only need look at the practice of fetal selection to find just one example of the depth and persistence of discrimination against women. But almost every society faces similar inequalities at some level.

The United Nations, of course, has sought to address these inequalities. Through the series of great global conferences, stretching back to the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975, governments have wrestled with the traditions, cultural norms, and political expediencies that have kept women from reaching their full potential — indeed, that have kept the entire human race from reaching its full potential.

In 1995, of course, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing upheld the "the full implementation of the human rights of women and of the girl child as an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.."

And most recently, with the Millennium Declaration and — through the 2002 Special Session on Children — the United Nations has sought to complete its unfinished business in this area by establishing a series of time-bound goals for promoting "gender equality and the empowerment of women" as well as the education of children as among the most "effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable."

Since the General Assembly adopted A World Fit for Children, it is first and foremost the responsibility of the Governments to implement its agenda. However, the Plan of Action also includes a commitment to strengthen partnerships with a series of other actors, each of whom are recognized as having unique contributions to make in the implementation process. (These partners include local governments, municipalities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society organizations, civil, religious and traditional leaders, families, communities and community groups, the private sector, children and young people themselves. )

The theme of this talk has been the idea that education for all — and especially for girls — is not only a human right, however, but also in the best interests of society as a whole. It is, indeed, perhaps the single best development strategy we have.

In April 1990, the World Conference on Education for All (EFA) in Jomtien, identified improving access to quality education for girls and women as 'the most urgent priority'. Improved access of girls to school has been prioritized in global education strategies by setting 2005 as the target year for the elimination of gender disparities. This is the earliest time-bound goal agreed at the Dakar World Education Forum, in April 2000, where participants from 164 countries re-affirmed this commitment, "ensuring that by 2015 all children, with special emphasis on girls, have access to and the means to complete a primary education of good quality." At this meeting the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, launched the UN Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI), stating that, "The first step is for societies to recognize that educating girls is not an option; it is a necessity."

We must remember however that access to free education alone is insufficient to keep girls in school. What girls can do with their schooling determines the attractiveness of schooling. If women cannot be employed or self employed, own land, open a bank account, get a bank loan, if they are denied freedom to marry or not to marry, if they are deprived of political representation, education alone will have little effect on their plight. The principle of indivisibility of human rights necessitates looking at education in relation to all other rights and freedoms. Indeed it is the recognition of all other rights, or the lack thereof, that affects education.

The aim of this conference is to strengthen and establish networks and partnerships among organizations committed to accelerating the goals of eliminating gender disparity and providing universal quality basic education to every child in the region.

We also hope to identify region specific strategies and follow up steps for keeping up the momentum towards achieving the goals set by the World Fit for Children and the Millennium Development Summit.

At this point, I would like to add my own particular spin on the problem, despite all of these international documents over the years, despite millions if not billions of dollars in international funding, despite the good words of politicians and social activitists down through the years, the work of ensuring education for all — and especially equal education for girls — remains far from done.

We must, then, look deep inside ourselves and ask what are the real barriers that prevent the advancement of women and the proper and just education of girls.

I think on this score, we must examine those social and cultural issues that have, traditionally and historically, lead the majority to value men and their contributions to society over women.

It is these traditions and cultural factors that are that shiny bit of candy or gleaming sports car that prevent us from seeing our own best long term interest.

In some societies, for example, families see boys as future farm workers (and/or parental caretakers) — and so they value them more than girls. But the reality is that in our globalizing, information-based society, it is brain and not brawn that more reliably ensures a family's long-term prosperity.

On a societal level, too, boys are also often viewed as future leaders — and so more deserving of education. This is, of course, a warped view in which discrimination folds back on itself. Women are certainly equally capable of leading. In any event, however, studies show that even when boys are to become the leaders, they are better leaders if their mothers were better educated.

When you think about it, the idea of enlightened self-interest stems from what is essentially a spiritual faculty. The phrase itself stems from the word enlightenment — which itself invokes that power of vision that enables the human mind to see the future and imagine things in a different way — and then to act so as to bring about that transformation.

Again, permit me to quote from the Baha'i sacred writings. From 'Abdu'l-Baha:

"The world of humanity has two wings — one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be."

I believe that it is through the power of spiritual insight and inspiration that we can reach deep into the roots of those wrong-headed and illusory ideas about women's inequality that prevent us as families and societies from achieving our full potential.

Only then can we collectively learn to see beyond those prejudices and traditions that have lead us to short change girls in education. Only then can we collectively realize the long-term benefits that will come from providing all children with an equal and quality education.

Thank you.

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