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Girls Have a Right to Know

The Human Rights Council at its annual full day discussion on Women’s Human Rights in Geneva has been told that progress on gender equality in education is so slow it is unlikely to be achieved before 2040. This year’s discussion, “Empowering Women through Education” heard from a number of experts who talked of some progress but in totality described a situation where millions of girls continue to experience disadvantage and discrimination that prevents an effective education.

Progress on gender equality in education is so slow it is unlikely to be achieved before 2040 © UN Photo

The conference on human rights as the foundation for progress on MDGs was organised by non-governmental organizations Amnesty International and Realizing Rights in preparation for the MDG summit in New York this September to assess progress towards the MDGs.

Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realizing other rights but despite widespread acceptance of this principle, nonetheless there was unanimity at the meeting that in practice much more needed to be done.

Opening the panel discussion, Deputy High Commissioner Kyung-wha Kang said that of the 130 million young people out of school today, 70 percent are girls. On the other hand, she told the Council, “When a girl is educated the benefits are truly life-changing.”

The Deputy pointed to research which shows that girls who are educated are likely to marry later, are better protected from a forced or early marriage, are likely to contribute to reducing the HIV/AIDS rate in their countries, will have fewer children and are less likely to suffer pregnancy-related complications or death. Girls who have been to school for a significant amount of time often become drivers for positive social change and when they are able to work, they are more likely than boys, to invest most of it in their families, she said.

Kang said it was unlikely at the current rate of progress that Millennium Development Goal 3, the elimination of the gender disparity between boys and girls access to primary education, was likely to be achieved. Because of the recent financial and economic crises, “Girls have been the first to be withdrawn from school”, Kang said, “in order to help their families cope with economic hardship.”

Vernor Muñoz Villalobos, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education said poverty was only one factor preventing girls from attending school. Early marriages and unwanted pregnancies were indicators of predominant beliefs that the only role of women was reproduction and existence in private home environments, he said.

The right to education should be guaranteed for all women, Muñoz said but unfortunately in many parts of the world, women are still not perceived as rights holders.

Lack of access to appropriate sanitation facilities is another significant reason fewer girls than boys attend school. The Independent Expert on the Issue of Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, said one of the factors that helped explain why more girls than boys continue to drop out of school was access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Girls often have the task of fetching water on a daily basis which makes them either late for school or unable to attend and they are more affected by poor sanitation facilities at school. De Albuquerque told the meeting that one statistic estimated that 11 percent more girls attended school when good sanitation was available.

The Deputy High Commissioner highlighted the consequences of a lack of education for women; without schooling, women’s knowledge of nutrition, birth spacing and contraception are limited. “One telling fact is that the main cause of death for 15 to 19 year old girls worldwide is pregnancy and childbirth complications. They are part of the statistics of a staggering number of hundreds of thousands of women and girls who are lost each year during pregnancy and childbirth,” she said.

18 June 2010