The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Equality for women is progress for all’. Eun Woo Kim spoke to UNICEF’s gender expert for East Asia and the Pacific, Chemba Raghavan, and asked her what the theme meant to her.
Chemba recounted a story from her village in India, of Ms. Bhargavi, a mother who was only educated until high school. “She realized the value of education and was determined to give her children the opportunities she didn’t have.”
“She always told us that she was just ‘taking small steps’: working to empower herself and to help pay for her children’s education, ensuring they had food and nutrition and were cared for, helping her children with their homework, and meeting with their teachers. Her daughter is now applying for a master’s degree.
“This is one way a woman can impact a generation. And today, I salute the hundreds of women like her who are making these and other efforts in their personal and their professional lives towards big changes in the world.”
Gender equality is a basic human right. It also has enormous socio-economic impact. Educated and empowered girls grow up to be women who have fewer and healthier children. They take better care of themselves and are less likely to die in child-birth. According to the Girl Effect, an extra year of primary education boosts girls’ future wages by 10-20 per cent. An extra year of secondary school adds 15-25 per cent.
“Giving girls and boys equal educational opportunities benefits national economies,” added Chemba. “We know that every additional year of girls’ education brings a three per cent increase in the country’s GDP, even if only 10 per cent more girls go to schools.” Closing the unemployment gap between women and men would yield an increase in GDP of up to 1.2 per cent in a single year.
However, unequal treatment is part of too many women and girls’ daily lives. They are too often denied access to basic education and decent work. They suffer violence and discrimination. Their voice is often ignored in decision-making processes.
As the story of Ms. Bhargavi shows, change is possible. It is possible when families support girls to continue their education. It is possible when poor women are empowered to make that change, including through grants or bank loans. Big changes are possible when appropriate policies and laws are designed, for example, to protect women in the home and work place.
“Gender equality is emphasized in everything UNICEF does,” stressed Chemba. In education, we work to ensure that girls and boys have equal access to education; that curricula promote gender equality; and that gender perspectives are taken into account when designing Child-Friendly Schools.
At the policy level, UNICEF works with governments to strengthen national policies and budgets and use these as tools to promote gender equality. “We do all this because we know that equality for women and girls does mean progress for all,” Chemba concluded.
UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific regional office co-hosts the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) Regional Secretariat and supports two working groups on School-Related-Gender-Based Violence (SRGBV) and marginalization with UNGEI partners in the region.