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Education is the foundation of gender equality


Photo: Kuniko Inoguchi, political scientist and former Japanese Minister for Gender Equality and Social Affairs, addressing the High Level Reflection Group meeting in Paris in November 2019.

Women are in the periphery of most societies. And then if you have other problems – like if you are living with a disability, if you are disaster stricken, if you have bad access to education, for any number of reasons, then you are also in the periphery of your society. So, gender inequality is linked to many other problems, and half of the world’s population is doubly impacted

Kuniko Inoguchi, scientist and former Japanese Minister for Gender Equality and Social Affairs

The universal occurrence of these unequal, intersectional experiences reflects the pressing need to not only unburden our societies of damaging patriarchal and paternalistic traditions, but also intervene in a comprehensive way that, according to Kuniko Inoguchi, begins with education.

Translating equal access to education into long-term equality of opportunity

“Development without education is not sustainable. It must start early. It must be equally available to boys and girls. And there must be persistent opportunities available to all generations to access quality education, including for those who have fallen out of the education system.”

This means investing in early childhood education, through primary and higher education to post-doctoral education. It means ensuring access, and encouraging, older people to return to, complete, or even start their education if they wish. It also means targeting vulnerable children and citizens who have fallen out of the education system, including those who have dropped out or been explicitly deprived, like child soldiers, children subject to child labour, refugees, and the more than 11 million girls who may not return to school after COVID-19.  This also links to ensuring the safety of girls in school and the safety of children in general, says Kuniko Inoguchi.

“To participate in education, children must be alive and well. Societies have a responsibility to ensure this, and to ensure that inequalities do not drive dangers experienced by children, whether that be traffic accidents or sexual harassment in school environments.”

What we must also consider, says Kuniko Inoguchi, is that once we have safe and equal access to education, this does not automatically translate to equal access to the labour market.

For many women, accessing education doesn’t inevitably lead to equal opportunities for employment. But you can’t give up your equal opportunities to education. The time will come when girls will have better opportunities in society. We see it in societies across the world. Doors will open for more participation in leadership and management. And education is the foundation. Keep on studying. The curtain will rise, quite soon.

Kuniko Inoguchi

In addition, says Kuniko Inoguchi, education must be pursued so that women can access leadership and decision-making roles – roles which can, in turn, help advance gender equality. She speaks about her own experience:

“There is a direct link between girls’ education and them later taking up leadership positions. For instance, after getting my degree, nobody wanted to hire women in Japan. But Sophia University decided to hire me as the first female assistant professor in political science. I then became the first female professor of political science at that university, then the first female dean of international relations, before I took up my position as a parliamentarian. I decided to become a parliamentarian because I wanted to secure democracy on the ground, and make sure that girls and women would have opportunities for generations to come.”

Pandemic has highlighted patterns of vulnerability

These opportunities must be pursued and made available with specific inequalities – and vulnerabilities – kept in mind. In addition to school closures, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and exposed a number of other vulnerabilities experienced by women and children. These vulnerabilities are cross-border issues, says Kuniko Inoguchi, and one of the most prevalent and damaging we have seen is the experience of domestic violence.

“Domestic violence can lead to lifelong trauma. During the pandemic, many people are trapped in their homes, under different stresses, and violence can ensue. Societies have a responsibility to prevent domestic violence, support victims, and ensure that children are never subjected to this. Leaders have a responsibility to speak out against it, especially in times of crisis.”

According to Kuniko, investments must be made in community workers and employment protections, and support given to struggling parents. In addition, she says, UNESCO has a role here in speaking out against domestic violence.

Prioritising education, social progress and gender equality for sustainable development

COVID-19 has also highlighted female labour market precarity, as well as other concerning trends in discrimination and poverty. The pandemic, says Kuniko Inoguchi, cannot be allowed to kill the progress made in social development, gender equality and education.

In times of crisis, we cannot let discriminations grow. Cultural diversity must be celebrated. Gender equality must be sought. Education must be 100% inclusive.

Kuniko Inoguchi

UNESCO’s work toward peace, based on an inclusive and transdisciplinary mandate, means it has an important role to play in this arena.

“Only with global peace will we be able to effectively reallocate resources to sustainable development, education, inclusion, diversity, climate change, cultural heritage, welfare, health coverage – all those important social necessities that, like women, have often been kept at the periphery. After COVID-19, countries need to reprioritise. UNESCO can be a leader in showing that children, women and sustainable development should be at the centre of this shift.”

UNESCO is a “brand for peace” that inspires empathy and positive impact

Key strengths that UNESCO has to this end, says Kuniko Inoguchi, lie in its celebration of cultural diversity and its work on the science of climate change and oceans – having intercultural harmony and a stable planet are two vital requirements for peace, she says. Most importantly, these strengths lie in UNESCO’s ability to inspire empathy in people around the world, and to engage them in our collective challenges.

“UNESCO is a brand for peace. It inspires understanding, better cognition, tolerance – it gives you the opportunity to imagine things you’ve never seen. It helps people understand what it is like to be, for example, a girl deprived of education. It taps into the treasure of the human mind, to help provide perspective and empathy. It helps us imagine the suffering of other people and motivates us to help and work with UNESCO for solutions.”

Kuniko Inoguchi 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.