Better Life, Better Future: UNESCO Advances Educational Opportunities for Women and Girls

Posted by David T. Killion
June 9, 2011
Secretary Clinton Shakes Hands With UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made history at UNESCO with her visit, the first ever by a U.S. Secretary of State in the organization's 65-year history. As the U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO, my team and I were thrilled to have helped host the Secretary, who electrified an audience of over 1,300 with her call to do even more to support girls' education around the world. The sheer amount of woman power in that building -- including Secretary Clinton, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and Mali (both of whom are women), U.S. Ambassador for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, plus prominent women in some of the world's leading businesses -- helped launch a critical initiative to boost the standing of girls through cooperation, better data reporting, and partnership -- Better Life, Better Future.

Not only was it heartening how many important leaders turned out for this event, but I was also struck by the heartfelt stories many of them shared about their reasons for supporting greater access to education for women and girls. For example, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon touched everyone in the audience with his personal story of the critical role his mother played in his life and the difficulties she faced struggling to keep her family alive when they were displaced during the Korean War and its aftermath.

Together, Secretary Clinton and Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon led an engaging event that highlighted UNESCO's key role in bringing together nations, partners, people of different faiths, philosophies and walks of life to improve access to education for women and girls. Secretary Clinton said it best when she called UNESCO, 'a vital force for the advancement of human progress.' She is right. UNESCO's expertise in education, science and culture along with its global reach make it the perfect place to come together to make progress in girls education. Moreover, UNESCO doesn't limit its work to the abstract realm -- it is blessed with committed staff, field workers, partners and member-states who help set goals and carry out programs that send kids to school, prepare communities for natural disasters, promote media freedom, protect cultural heritage, and promote peace and understanding across cultures.

In her remarks at UNESCO, Secretary Clinton stressed that improving girls' access to education isn't just the right thing to do; it's the smart thing to do. Studies done by every nearly every institution -- international organizations, investment banks, governments -- have made it abundantly clear that educating girls and women leads to a stronger economy, better governance and a healthier population. Infant mortality declines when girls are educated. GDP grows, often by as much as nine or ten percentage points. Poverty declines. In some regions, deforestation is reduced.

It is wonderful to see that the private sector is also recognizing the importance of girls' education, as reflected by the fact that many partnerships in this area that UNESCO has embarked upon with companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and Procter & Gamble are flourishing. These companies are contributing new ideas, technologies, and more resources to the effort to the help improve the status of women around the world. When you can literally give a young girl in Pakistan the means to get of poverty, thanks to mobile literacy, then you have not only changed her life, you have changed her village, her country and everything around her. When a girl in Kenya can go to school and study, she not only learns about the world and the skills to survive in it, but she learns to believe in herself. (You can see more about girls like these in this video, which was produced by UNESCO and the UN Foundation, and played during the event.)

This is why girls' education isn't just an issue on which women should be focused, it is an issue on which we should all be focused. All of us suffer when girls don't get the education they need and deserve. They are our mothers, our daughters, our sisters. These are the women whose hands and hearts guide us, build societies, and work alongside us to build a better future for all. When they have the access and means to study and learn to the fullest extent possible, we all benefit. It's why the United States and Secretary Clinton are so committed to staying involved with UNESCO.

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