Education and Gender Equality - My Vision to UN Women
To the UN Women Executive Director
Dear Michelle Bachelet,
It is with great joy that I write this letter to you. Joy because of the huge step that the creation of UN Women represents to the promotion of women's rights. Joy because the Executive Director of such an important organization is - like me - a Latin American. And joy because I have now, through this letter, the opportunity to express my opinion and recommendation about what should, in my perspective, be the focus of UN Women’s work.
In 2000, when the UN came up with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), I was very young. But I still can remember writing a composition for my Portuguese language class about my hopes for the new millennium. By then, I studied in an excellent private school. I come from a middle class family and therefore I had access to a good education - an opportunity most young women do not have in Brazil.
Ten years later, in 2010, I came as an exchange student to Canada. One of the Political Science courses I took there was especifically about the United Nations. I was asked to choose a research topic for the course. Remembering the composition I wrote for my school one decade earlier, I chose the Millennium Development Goals two (achieve universal primary education) and three (promote gender equality and empower women).
The reason why I chose to research about the MDGs has to do with my belief that if the international community fails in achieving the MDGs, it would be tragic not only for the least developed countries, but for the international community as a whole. Nations would have to face the evidence of its incapability to solve social and economic problems which bring about sub-human standards of living that are incompatible with the notion of civilization itself.
In addition, I chose to research about the MDGs number two and three, especifically, because they are deeply connected. This is made clear when we consider that one of the main indicators of gender equality is related to the access to education and, reciprocally, among the main indicators of access to education, there is the parity of genders enrolled in primary education institutions.
While researching, I made some intriguing discoveries. A very important one was that the problem in Latin America is not exactly lack of access to education. As a matter of fact, Latin America has presented a surprisingly good performance in expanding girls’ access to education. According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in a report released in 2005, the region achieved equitable access to education for both boys and girls ahead of time.
Of course, this is amazing. But, in spite of the optimism it may trigger among civil society and government, this achievement should not blind us for the many problems related to gender equality and education in Latin America. For example, there is still a visible wage gap between men and women and, due to gender discrimination, the skills women acquire through education are often not translated into productive force. Some authors also affirm that the main challenges for achieving the MDGs in Latin America are to avoid school drop-out rates in elementary school and reduce it in high school.
But the main problem, in my opinion, is not even considered in the MDGs: the quality of education. My research showed that nine out of ten boys and girls have access to basic education in the Latin America of the 21st century. However, the educational levels in the region remain very low if compared to other countries. Although more children are being educated, the quality of education they receive leaves much to be desired.
In Brazil, most of the public schools are in horrible conditions. With deficient infrastructure, insufficience of basic materials such as whiteboards, markers and desks and underpaid teachers, the Brazilian public schools are very often pervaded by organized crime, prostitution and drug-dealing. Cases of student threatening teachers, youth carrying guns to class or sexual abuse among students are not rare at all.
We want women to be educated and prepared for life in school, not raped, not abused, not disrespected. Instead of being a place for learning, the school became a place for violence. In such a context, I wonder if it is effective to demand higher school enrolment rates, instead of demanding a better education system.
In addition, most countries in Latin America do not yet participate in international standardized tests which makes it difficult to draw reliable comparisons with other regions. Yet available national and international evaluations show that student learning remains considerably below world averages, with some of the countries in the region holding positions near the bottom of the ranking.
Taking all this into consideration, my vision and recommendation for UN Women is that we (UN Women, civil society and local governments) should work hard to achieve the MDGs. But, more than that, we need to pay attention to what lies beyond them. We must empower women. We must promote gender equality. We must guarantee universal access to education to both women and men. But, more than that, we must provide a better universal education.
For that, local governments have to dedicate a larger amount of money to the public educational system. The investments have to be directed at infrastructure and human resources. The public schools have to be constantly monitored by human rights agencies, to ensure that no abuses or crimes are taking place. International standardized tests have to be created by means of regional and global cooperation.
I am convinced UN Women, in partnership with other UN organisations, can play a leadership role in tackling the issues of education and gender equality. This way, we will make sure that girls and women have educational opportunities as much as boys and men. And, on top of that, that this education is truly beneficial for all youths.
Thank you for your time.
As the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women officially begins its work this month, World Pulse is asking women worldwide: What is YOUR vision and recommendation for UN Women? We invite you to raise your voice by writing a letter to UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet outlining your recommendation for how this new UN agency can truly affect change on the ground to promote gender equality and uphold the rights and needs of women both on a local and global scale.
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