By Helen Grant OBE, MP for Maidstone and The Weald, UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Girls’ Education; and Sabrina Dhowre Elba, Europe Board Chair, Global Citizen
In the last three years, the movement for gender equality has traversed extreme highs and lows. The global outpouring of solidarity among and alongside women on marches everywhere, from Mexico to Iran, and the record number of women elected to positions of leadership, show the ongoing strength and momentum of the gender equality movement.
This should give us reason for an optimistic view of the years ahead. The global feminist movement grows stronger with every stride toward gender equality, and demonstrates to women and girls everywhere, that positive change is entirely possible. But despite our progress, we are still a long way from achieving gender equality, especially in relation to the vision set out in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, or the 17 UN Global Goals.
The COVID-19 pandemic unveiled stark and undeniable inequalities between genders, and brought into focus the urgent necessity of action and investment in women and girls. In their health, their hopes, and their empowerment. At the heart of this investment must be Global Goal number 4: equitable access to education. Investing in young people and future generations is critical, and more concrete steps are needed to ensure we deliver safe, quality education to children around the world, and an opportunity to make their voices heard. This is all the more important for girls, for whom the barriers can seem insurmountable, and who see precious gains made being overturned in Iran and Afghanistan.
School closures over the last three years taught us that, in times of crisis, education is often the first service to be interrupted and the last to be resumed. Around the world, up to 11 million girls might be pushed out of school permanently because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On top of this, in one of the most extreme blows to women’s freedoms, the Taliban regime announced in December 2022 that women are to be banned from universities in Afghanistan, including students, female teachers, and professors. In addition, the devastating effects of climate change continue to threaten education opportunities for girls, particularly in the global south, who are living on the front lines of heat waves, droughts, severe storms, and other extreme climate events, yet remain drastically underrepresented at the global climate negotiation tables.
It’s virtually impossible to imagine what our lives might look like today had we not been granted access to a safe and equitable education from a young age. We could never have discovered and enjoyed the experiences and opportunities that have led to our career paths, and the positions we now hold, as a Member of Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Girls’ Education, and as a Europe Board Chair at advocacy organization Global Citizen, respectively. Having access to quality education has been integral to both of our stories, affording us opportunities from a young age, not only dream and aspire, but to believe wholeheartedly that our aspirations were achievable and within reach.
Education is too often overlooked and side-lined in the face of issues like climate change, displacement, and the hunger crisis. With extreme weather events disrupting the education of 40 million children a year, education systems must become more resilient to climate and environmental changes. Education is also an essential tool in providing solutions to the climate crisis, with girls’ education being identified as the most important socioeconomic determinant in reducing vulnerability to climate change. The UN Climate Change Conference COP28 will be a critical moment for world leaders to come together to make ambitious commitments on climate and education, including ensuring climate actions and negotiations always consider the role of education.
Investments in education go a long way to reshaping how women engage in sectors that are profitable for them and result in tangible jobs that lift them and their communities out of poverty. Particular focus must be placed on rural areas, which are home to over 70% of the world's poor, and where agriculture is the primary source of income. Despite their critical role in agriculture, women have less access to agricultural inputs and own less property and oftentimes the land they do have access to is of inferior quality.
Educational barriers, particularly for women and girls, remain prevalent, and will only serve to reinforce these additional barriers later in life and in key productive sectors. It is now estimated that without action, the current generation of students risks losing $21 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value, or the equivalent of 17% of today’s global gross domestic product (GDP).
March 8 marks International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It is also a day to raise awareness about the discrimination that women and girls face around the world and to take action to drive gender parity forward. It is in this respect that Rt. Hon. James Cleverly is launching the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s "International Women and Girls Strategy". Education is critical to empowering young girls around the world, and we know that education is truly a game changer. The child of a mother who can read is 50% more likely to live beyond the age of five years, twice as likely to attend school themselves, 50% more likely to be immunized, and are more able to choose if, when, and how many children they have.
There is no time more critical than now to invest in girls’ education, and public support for investment in education is clear. On the Global Citizen platform alone, 65,798 actions have been taken by young people, calling on world leaders to invest in Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the global fund dedicated exclusively to education in emergencies. It is now for governments to deliver on the issues their citizens care about.
In February, world leaders convened in Geneva for the Education Cannot Wait High-Level Financing Conference. This was a vital step in leaders working to make 222 million dreams a reality, by turning commitments into action, and making substantial funding commitments to Education Cannot Wait.
At the conference, the United Kingdom announced a new pledge of £90 million to support education in emergencies and protracted crises, including £80 million to Education Cannot Wait. The High Level Financing Conference was an important milestone as we work to reach 222 million crisis-affected children and adolescents in need of education support. This is 222 million vulnerable boys and girls whose dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, artists, and authors remain on hold, for as long as their access to education remains blocked.
Tragically this number will continue to face upward pressure, as climate change and natural disasters cause further challenges for countries, some already affected by war. We are only just starting to understand the devastating impacts of the Turkey-Syria earthquakes, especially for children and young people in Syria who are facing compounded trauma, displacement, and disruption following years of protracted conflict.
It’s on us to help the world’s most vulnerable children and youth — their education, their futures, simply cannot wait.