Amid Global Learning Crisis, Education Opens Doors, Changes Lives for Girls, Women, Speakers Stress as Population and Development Commission Begins Annual Session
Education is a door-opener and a life-changer, especially for girls and women, senior United Nations officials stressed, as the Commission on Population and Development opened its fifty-sixth session, against the backdrop of a global learning crisis.
This year’s session which focuses on “Population, education and sustainable development” heard opening remarks from experts across the Organization’s system who detailed solutions to address interrupted education and the gender inequity in access to education.
Highlighting the transformative potential of education for individuals and their societies, Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), asked delegates to “imagine a girl standing at a fork in the road.” If she is able to stay in school, she’s well set on a path of lifelong health and well-being, but if she is forced to drop out of school, to marry as a child or if she becomes pregnant while still a child herself, she will face a cascade of challenges that jeopardize not only her health and well-being but also her society’s prospects for prosperity.
“UNFPA knows this girl,” she added, underscoring that better-educated women are healthier, marry later and are more likely to plan the number and spacing of children. Education also reduces the likelihood of harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation and lowers risk of gender-based violence. Stressing the importance of comprehensive sexuality education, offered in an age-appropriate and culturally sensitive manner, she said: “It makes perfect sense: give people the information and power to take charge of their own reproductive rights and choices, and development outcomes improve.”
Also stressing the importance of digital access and skills, she said the international community must not allow technology to add another layer of disadvantage and discrimination against women and girls. Calling for deeper, local investments, she said official development assistance (ODA) to education must increase, along with greater domestic support. She also underscored the importance of quality disaggregated population data “to ascertain precisely who is being left behind, where and why”.
Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, drawing attention to the plight of Afghan women and girls, called on the de facto authorities in Afghanistan to reverse the bans on education and employment. Noting that progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 is “seriously off track”, she voiced concern about the 263 million children and youth out of school. Moreover, many of those in school are not learning, she observed, adding that nearly 70 per cent of children in poorer countries are unable to understand a basic text by age 10, many due to the effects of poverty and malnutrition.
Highlighting the link between education, technology and demographic trends, she called for initiatives to get every learner climate-ready and connected to the Internet. This is especially important for young women and girls from the Global South who are most excluded. “Digital poverty is the new face of gender inequality,” she said, adding that the Transforming Education Summit generated new resources to support education in lower-middle-income countries and created new momentum for a youth-led global movement. Technology is dramatically changing the nature and availability of employment; however, its potential to financially include women from the informal sector remains unrealized, she said.
Georghe Leucă (Republic of Moldova), Chair of the Commission’s fifty-sixth session, noted that more than 90 per cent of the world’s children had their education interrupted during the pandemic, which also reversed progress relating to gender equality in education. “We have a solemn responsibility to learners,” he said, calling on all delegates to demonstrate political will. This year, he added, the population aged 6-11 years, corresponding to those in primary education, is expected to reach an all-time high of 820 million. Despite success in increasing enrolment and in progress towards gender equality in education, much remains to be done to improve completion rates and the quality of education, he stressed.
Xing Qu, Deputy Director-General of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), speaking via a pre-recorded video, drew attention to the 244 million children who are out of school; many of them are girls and young women who were forced out of formal education. At the Transforming Education Summit last September, almost two thirds of countries said they are worried about the well-being of their teachers and students, he said. His organization is supporting Governments and communities to close the gender gap in school enrolment and participation, he said, highlighting the Keeping Girls in the Picture campaign, launched during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
UNESCO, he added, is also enabling Governments to provide good quality education on relationships, puberty, and sexual and reproductive health. Many boys and girls simply cannot learn because they are unwell, hungry and marginalized, he noted, adding that his organization is therefore strengthening efforts to embed health in schools, including by ensuring that nutritious school meals are provided. Citing the words of Yassine, a young man from Togo who appears in one of UNESCO’s campaign videos, he said: “Knowledge is a weapon.”
Delivering a keynote address was Wolfgang Lutz, Professor of Demography at the University of Vienna, who noted that the media is flooded with news about birth rates, death rates, migration and future population trends, typically with a negative connotation. Demographic trends are seen as looming problems, no matter whether the topic is population growth or ageing, he observed. Age is often not the most relevant characteristic of people, he said, adding that other characteristics — such as place of residence, health status and the education level — matter greatly for the interactions of population trends with broader social, economic and environmental concerns.
Highlighting the Republic of Korea’s example, he said it illustrates that, when there is political will, even poor countries with high fertility and rapidly growing populations can move quickly towards universal primary and secondary education. It has been shown that education has causal effects on fertility and mortality, he said, noting that every new learning experience builds new synapses in human brains and — if reinforced through repetition — they remain therein and every future experience will build on them.
Also delivering opening remarks, Li Junhua, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, described education as one of the best investments that societies can make. Also stressing the importance of investing in digital literacy and closing the digital divide, he underscored that providing migrants with access to basic education and recognizing their credentials is key to their integration in host countries. The international community must push further to ensure access to quality education for girls and young women. Despite significant progress in closing the gender gap in school enrolment, much more remains to be done to improve women’s rates of school completion and access to decent jobs.
The Commission also held a general debate today as well as a panel discussion, focusing on the Secretary-General’s reports on population, education and sustainable development (E/CN.9/2023/2); on programmes and interventions for the implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (E/CN.9/2023/3); and on the flow of financial resources for assisting in the further implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (E/CN.9/2023/4).
Moderated by Sarah Linton, Vice-Chair of Continuing Professional Development (Australia), the panel featured: Mun Sim Lai, Population Affairs Officer, Population Division, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs; Rachel Snow, Chief, Population and Development Branch, Technical Division, UNFPA; Christopher Castle, Director, Division for Peace and Sustainable Development, UNESCO; and Srinivas Reddy, Chief, Skills and Employability Branch, International Labour Organization (ILO).
Ms. Lai, noting that population and education are interconnected, said that while many high-income as well as low-income countries invest between 5 and 6 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP)in health and education, in countries with small youth populations, this level of investment is shared among a smaller group of young people, resulting in high investment per young person. Thus, capital investment per child in countries with lower percentages of youth are double that of countries with higher proportions of youth in the population. This easing of demographic pressure on educational spending is one of the most important benefits of an ageing population, she said, noting that this presents a major opportunity to invest in quality education for each child. Noting another impact of population ageing, she highlighted the importance of lifelong learning and reskilling of workers. Further, education has an impact on population, she said, noting that it strongly influences “when we die, how we die, and how many children we have.”
Ms. Snow stressed the importance of a lifelong approach to education, highlighting the health, nutrition and learning benefits of early education and stressing that such benefits continue late in life. Given that the pace of technological innovation is not likely to slow down, the opportunity to re-tool must be considered, she asserted. There are many people in the world whose educational opportunities were disrupted by, for example, early marriage, she cautioned, advocating for compulsory and free education. Citing household poverty as one of the major reasons that children are not in school, she underlined the role of conditional cash transfers in boosting enrolment among young children. Drawing attention to gender, she said that girls comprise three quarters of children of primary school age who never go to school. She also underlined that comprehensive sexuality education is a means to ensure that young people can avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
Mr. Castle stressed that policies to accelerate progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 must ensure that learning environments are safe, inclusive, healthy, stimulative and supportive of all learners. Further, it is vital to provide support for teachers on adopting learner-centred approaches, using digital tools, responding to learners’ realities and promoting learning based on enquiry, curiosity and problem-solving. He also called for greater investment in equitable quality education which reaches under-served people and the most marginalized. Good quality education, he underscored, has the potential to improve learners’ life skills. Through a gender equality and human rights approach in particular, education which encompasses topics covering sexual and reproductive health, notably delays the initiation of sexual intercourse, decreases its frequency and the number of sexual partners, reduces risk-taking, increases condom and contraception use and reduces early and unintended pregnancies. For its part, UNESCO has been supporting Governments by putting this into action and documenting progress through online country profiles and its global status report.
Mr. Reddy, noting the profound transformation under way in the world of work, said lifelong learning is crucial for the future of work. Pointing to the problem posed by the mismatch between jobs skills and aspirations, he said increased investment in job-creation skills and lifelong learning can close the gap. Calling on the international community to put people at the heart of economic and social policies, he added that people have to undergo multiple transitions — not just school-to-work transition but work-to-work transition and work-to-family transition as they change many jobs in their careers. Also stressing the importance of decarbonization and digitalization, he said skills in those fields can enable people to benefit from the opportunities presented by digital, green and care economies. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of digitalization of skills and life-long learning systems, he said, adding that reskilling and upskilling should be centered around flexible learning pathways with strong emphasis on the needs of vulnerable groups of people.
When the floor opened for discussion, several delegates expressed concern about the educational gaps and their impact on sustainable development.
The representative of Indonesia pointed to the challenges of reaching a population spread across thousands of islands. While his Government maximized the use of digital technology to tackle those geographical challenges during the pandemic, the rapid development of that technology continues to leave a gap between the demand for quality education and his country’s capacity, he said.
The representative of Sweden asked for additional details on cash transfers for education.
Egypt’s delegate, underscoring the connection between formal education and vocational training, spotlighted his Government’s efforts on inclusion to improve the quality of its programmes for rural youth, adolescents and girls. He inquired about the mutual recognition of skill and support for migrant host countries before voicing his regret that the Secretary-General’s report has examined concepts and topics which do not enjoy consensus.
Responding, Mr. Castle said that while digital technology can provide an opportunity to enhance access to education, it is not a replacement for the valuable role of teachers in-person in classrooms. When teachers know how to use digital technology in the classroom, they are unlocking a valuable tool, he stressed, highlighting the work of UNESCO’s global education coalition. Ms. LAI expressed concern that a large proportion of Governments do not give migrants access to public education and pointed to the challenges this poses to implementing universal access to education.
Ms. Snow noted the anxiety about ageing populations and decline in productivity in some societies, adding that while robotics and innovations will be crucial in the future, they demand a highly educated society. She also pointed to the importance of data regarding the digital connectivity of schools and described the conditional and unconditional cash transfer programmes in Malawi as well as the conditional programme in Colombia.
Mr. Reddy said that migrants are affected when their skills are not recognized in destination countries. His organization is working with others to launch a global skills partnership, which promotes mutual recognition of skills and qualifications between countries of origin and destination. Stressing the need for benchmarking, he said if such agreements do not already exist, one way to start would be to assess similarities, gaps, training and skills.
The representatives of Cuba and Nigeria also spoke during the interactive dialogue as did civil society speakers from the Yale International Relations Association as well as Asociación Nacional Cívica Femenina.
In other business, the Commission elected the following by acclamation: Monei Fetsi Future Rapuleng (Botswana), Fnu Imanuel (Indonesia) and Sylvia Paola Mendoza Elguea (Mexico) as Vice-Chairs. Mr. Rapuleng will also assume the responsibility of Rapporteur for the fifty-sixth session.
Members also approved the provisional agenda (document E/CN.9/2023/1) and provisional organization of work for the session (document E/CN.9/2023/L.1) on the understanding that further adjustments may be made to the latter as warranted during the course of the session.
The Commission on Population and Development will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 11 April, to continue its work.
* The 1st Meeting was covered in Press Release POP/1104 of 29 April 2022.