Photo: Aminata Touré, former Prime Minister of Senegal and current President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council of Senegal.
“Inequality, discrimination and racism – these are global challenges that we must fight strongly and collectively. Recent events, including COVID-19 and the world outcry following the tragic death of George Floyd, show that while we have made progress, there is still a long way to go,” says Aminata Touré, former Prime Minister of Senegal and current President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council of Senegal.
Such events reveal not only the deep inequalities that still exist in our societies, says Aminata Touré, but also the strong will to change them.
“The world is still plagued by what I call ‘Middle Ages attitudes’. It is difficult to believe we still have such outdated ways of thinking, that judge people on the way they look and what they believe in, spoiling lives today. These attitudes must catch up with the progress made in the rest of society.”
Such progress is made clear in global movements of young people, says Aminata Touré, who would like to see a new world where human behaviour and interaction match the progress made in, for example, technology – especially when related to the fight against racism. The strong stereotypes persisting around the world that contribute to deepening inequalities are not reflective of where we should be as a global community. These issues, says Aminata Touré, are matters of culture, which is one of the reasons they constitute such an important area of intervention for UNESCO.
Racial and Gender Equality go hand-in-hand
Hand-in-hand with racial inequalities are gender inequalities, which have also been exposed starkly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The gender dimensions of the pandemic, including impacts on girls’ education and increased precarity experienced by female-headed families, are, according to Aminata Touré, simply manifestations of inequalities that already exist.
“Of course, women’s rights are human rights – but we must act on this. As with racism, we must dismantle Middles Ages laws and behaviours that prevent people from having their fair chance. I understand that there is another way – a willingness to rid ourselves of these attitudes of the past and open a new world based on tolerance, peace and equality.”
One important area of work in the pursuit of this is education – an essential tool for moving up the social ladder, and a matter of life or death for many, says Aminata Touré.
Education is a tool for promoting tolerance and closing gaps. I’ve often said that education is the ‘key of all keys’ for gender equality: if you want to open doors for women, give them education and they will deal with the rest.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted education for everyone, with impacts felt disproportionately along gender, socioeconomic and racial lines around the world. Rebuilding and addressing disparities in education systems is crucial to addressing inequalities more broadly. Advancing education is also an essential characteristic of what Aminata Touré calls "the New African Narrative."
The New African Narrative a rejection of stereotypes
One of the key steps to eliminating the stereotypes of the past, says Aminata Touré, is to acknowledge the massive strides that have been taken in Africa to address inequalities, including in education and governance.
“There is still progress to be made. We must eradicate discriminatory practices like female genital mutilation and child marriage. But we can see that many things have also advanced massively in Africa. In Senegal, pre-COVID economic growth was up. The Senegalese parliament is forty-eight percent women. Last year, more girls sat the primary education entry exam than boys. This is a silent revolution.”
Such silent progress should be brought to the fore and recognised by the rest of the world, says Aminata Touré. Progress made has given evidence of itself during COVID, as African countries acted to stem the flow of the virus, and to address inequalities.
“There were financial packages, food support… We had to identify quickly who were the most vulnerable: single women-led households, those living in secluded areas, those in slums. And then we look at economic recovery.”
Ultimately, positive steps taken, and progress made, are exemplary of a new narrative for Africa, says Aminata Touré.
Africa is changing; it is a different world; it has a different mentality. It is a young continent! Seventy percent of the population is below 35. And there is a new generation of African leaders who are acknowledging the challenges we face and working to improve things.
Achieving inclusive social change by building upon cultural tolerance
Leaders the world over have a role to play. Global cooperation that results in concrete action, says Aminata Touré, is crucial to substantive change.
“Multilateralism is important, but it cannot be summarised in official documents and theoretical willingness – it must speak to people on the ground and be translated into programmes that change their lives.”
To change lives, we must remove barriers to inclusive social change. If racism and discrimination are cultural issues, built over history, says Aminata Touré, then they can be addressed with a focus on cultural tolerance. Education, science and culture all play a part in this by addressing a broad spectrum of inequalities and helping us build peaceful societies.
“UNESCO in the past and the present is known for its standing on issues of education, science and culture. In the UN system, it is the only organisation with a specific focus on culture. UNESCO has a great mandate to manifest in strong action and programmes to fight racism and discrimination.”
Aminata Touré is a member of the Director General’s High Level Reflection Group, an initiative of UNESCO’s Strategic Transformation designed to anticipate and analyse global developments and contribute to the enrichment of UNESCO’s next Medium-Term Strategy.
*The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or official position of UNESCO.