Rethinking education for girls and women explored at UN

March 7, 2011
Former Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet – Executive Director of UN Women – addressing the opening of the 55th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in the United Nations General Assembly, 22 February 2011. UN Photo by Devra Berkowitz.

UNITED NATIONS, United States — The education of women and girls, which is critical to the advancement of society, should include elements that acknowledge the importance of spiritual and moral development.

That was among the main points of a statement and program of events offered by the Baha'i International Community (BIC) at the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Participants from Belize, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Vietnam, made up the BIC delegation to the Commission, held from 22 February until 4 March.

The theme of this year's event was "access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women's equal access to full employment and decent work." Government delegates and non-governmental organizations from around the world reflected the theme in speeches, panel discussions and workshops.

"Education and Training for the Betterment of Society"

In its statement to the Commission, the Baha'i International Community observed how, in the realm of education, "spiritual and moral development has often been divorced from intellectual and vocational training."

"Imparting the ability to reflect on and apply spiritual, moral, and ethical principles will therefore be indispensable to the task of building a prospering world civilization," it said.

This also requires a re-thinking of educational processes.

"Every educational program rests on fundamental assumptions about human nature," said the statement. "A child – far from an empty vessel waiting to be filled – must be seen as 'a mine rich in gems of inestimable value,' their treasures being revealed and developed for the benefit of mankind only through the agency of education."

Read the full statement here (PDF).

Senior Policy Adviser on Education for UNICEF, Dr. Changu Mannathoko, participating in a panel discussion at the Baha'i International Community's New York offices on 23 February, as part of the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Slideshow
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Senior Policy Adviser on Education for UNICEF, Dr. Changu Mannathoko, participating in a panel discussion at the Baha'i International Community's New York offices on 23 February, as part of the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

Curriculum reform

A panel discussion, titled "Rethinking Education for Girls and Women: Beyond the Basic Curricula," was held at the BIC's New York offices on Wednesday 23 February.

Among the panellists, Dr. Changu Mannathoko – Senior Policy Advisor on Education for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) – said that in many countries, the current curriculum for girls is too often focused on the expectation that they will do particular jobs.

"The present curriculum is not transformative enough for it to change the lives of girls and women," said Dr. Mannathoko.

What needs to happen instead, she said, is to ensure that opportunities for boys are also available to girls. "It can't be designed just for boys, it must be for both," she said.

Dr. Mannathoko also spoke about the problem of HIV/AIDS in southern Africa and the need to look at gender behavior in terms of preventing rape and violence against women.

Boys speak out

The Baha'i International Community also hosted a series of events sponsored by a coalition of non-governmental organizations, including the National Alliance of Women's Organizations (NAWO) from the United Kingdom.

An unusual aspect of the program was the participation – sponsored by Widows Rights International – of six young men and boys, who contributed their own fresh insights into what can be done to support equality.

At a workshop titled "Boys Speak Out," Charlie Clayton, 17, from the UK, reported on a school project in Sweden where gender equality was stressed from a young age. When both sexes were expected to work together equally, he said, the "boys were calmer and the girls were more confident."

Mibaku Mollel, 23, from Tanzania shared his experiences of engaging other young African men in assisting more than 130 widows in villages to apply for microloans to start businesses.

"If more men and boys helped women, more women would have education. They would become teachers and the community would grow," said Mr. Mollel.

Creation of UN Women

One of the most discussed topics at this year's Commission was the creation of a new agency, UN Women.

Established by the United Nations General Assembly in July last year, UN Women consolidates the work on women's issues that was previously handled by four separate agencies.

UN Women's leader, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, introduced herself to the Commission on 22 February, explaining the agency's aims.

"This is a vision of a world where women and men have equal rights and opportunities, and the principles of gender equality and women's empowerment are firmly integrated in the development, human rights, and peace and security agendas," said President Bachelet.

Over the past four years, a number of NGOs – including the Baha'i International Community – were deeply involved in supporting the creation of UN Women. Eventually, a coalition of more than 27 organizations in 50 countries joined the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) campaign, an effort that many say was critical in the effort to get UN Women approved by the General Assembly.

"We are very pleased about the creation of this new agency," said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations.

"It is an important step, and it will hopefully give greater impetus and coherence to the work of the United Nations in its work for gender equality and the advancement of women.

"Our hope now is that governments will fully fund UN Women, so that it can deliver on its promises. We also want UN Women to engage with civil society in a substantive manner at all levels, global, regional and national," said Ms. Dugal.