Girl highlights conference theme

19 December 2003

NEW DELHI — A 10-year-old girl made one of the most moving speeches at a conference here that stressed the importance of educating girls.

Akansha Dhungyha told of the discrimination she faced as a girl in her home village of Bhaktapur, in Nepal.

"In my village, they send the boy to school thinking that he will take care of the parents when they get older, and that the girl will go to another home when she is married," said Akansha, explaining why girls are often kept at home.

She made her presentation on 19 December 2003 at a conference entitled "Education: The Right of Every Girl and Boy," which was organized by the Baha'i International Community with the support of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other international agencies and organizations.

Akansha told the conference that if parents do send the girls to school, they enroll them in lesser quality government schools, while the boys are sent to private institutions.

"And there are a lot of girls who leave the school because of the lack of toilets," she said. "Or the parents take the girls out of school and ask them to get married."

Akansha's experiences highlighted and reinforced some of the main points made by adults at the conference.

Some 150 governmental officials, international agency representatives, non-governmental activists, academics, and other civil society representatives gathered for the event, which was held 17-19 December 2003 at the Baha'i National Center (known as Baha'i House) in New Delhi.

4 images
The Baha'i House of Worship was the backdrop for the opening ceremony.

The conference sought to establish and strengthen networks and partnerships among organizations in South Asia that work to accelerate the provision of basic education of universal quality to all children, and especially to girls.

"We here in South Asia are challenged by high numbers of children out of school," said Erma Manoncourt, a deputy director for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), India, noting that some 43 million children are out of school in the region, and that the majority -- some 26 million -- are girls.

"It is only by increasing the enrollment and retention of girls that we can reach the goal [of universal education] " Ms. Manoncourt said.

By the end of the conference, many of the participants reached agreement on certain key points.

First, that greater efforts must be made to eliminate the cultural and economic barriers that prevent girls from going to school in South Asia.

As well, government funding for education must be increased so as to increase the availability of, and access to, schooling in the region.

Additionally, however, many participants stressed the importance of improving educational quality -- as a means of attracting children to school and keeping them there -- by emphasizing moral education, updating primary school curricula, increasing community participation, and giving localities more control over school administration.

"School education does not prepare a child to live," said Mervyn Fernando, the director of the SUBODHI Institute for Integral Education in Sri Lanka.

"It prepares a child for a job with certain skills. But even after grade 12 or 13, the child goes to society very ill-equipped to live life as a mature, successful citizen because a lot of important things have been left out of our education system."

The conference opened at the Baha'i House of Worship here, when a number of prominent officials and experts outlined the challenges and benefits of achieving universal education.

Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations, spoke about the importance of education -- and especially for girls -- as being in the "enlightened self-interest" of society.

"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," said Ms. Dugal.

"It is, indeed, perhaps the single best development strategy we have."

Ms. Dugal noted that the Baha'i writings stress the importance of educating girls -- a point she said had been confirmed by recent educational and sociological research.

Educated girls are healthier and more prosperous, she said, and their families and children are likewise healthier and more prosperous.

"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," Ms. Dugal said.

Dr. Sadig Rasheed, the Regional Director of UNICEF for the Region of South Asia, stressed the overall strategy of putting girls first as a means to increase educational access for everyone.

"We know that some of the things that can be done to keep a girl in school, such as better sanitation, a friendlier protective environment, and secure, violence- and harassment-free, surroundings, also benefit boys," said. Dr. Rasheed.

"By looking after the most vulnerable, we make conditions better for all. By reaching those who have the most difficulty in accessing education, we assist the path for everyone."

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit said that India must work harder to overcome cultural preconceptions that cause discrimination against girls and prevent their education.

"We are supposed to be a country of wise men, and yet we are one of the most illiterate countries in the world," said Ms. Dikshit.

"We have states where the girl foetus is still killed. Why are families choosing to kill the girl child even before she is born?"

"Despite the fact that my vegetable seller has a cell phone around his neck, he still does not think the girl at home needs to be educated," said Ms. Dikshit. "We must make education a habit."

Five South Asian countries were represented at the conference: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Many sent government representatives and all were represented by organizations of civil society, including the Bah' communities of each of the five countries.

The conference was co-sponsored and supported by a number of agencies, including: the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Vision India, National Foundation for India, Save the Children UK, Commonwealth Education Fund, and India Alliance for Child Rights.

(Photos and story by Brad Pokorny).