Today I would like to address girls’ education in South Asia in the post-tsunami environment. The first weeks of this new year have shown us both the destructive power of nature and the transformational power of collective human action. In a rare moment of international common cause, we have seen the very best of humanity in a global experience few of us will ever forget.
It is a most tragic irony that within the international reactions to the tsunami emergency we might have found what was missing in our decades long efforts to ensure every child their right to an education. We have been discussing this issue for what seems like forever and we have set goal after goal, not meeting the first one, moving it back another decade; not meeting the next one; moving it back yet again.
I urge you to take heed of the lessons of the tsunami.
First, the world is not a heartless place. Those of you tasked with monitoring the lives of children with and without an education, must bring that information to the wider public discourse. Do not be tentative about this; do not wait until you have the perfect answers to why girls are being denied. It is not whether the cause is tradition, culture, gender discrimination, economic. It is each of these alone and all of these together.
Second, enlist the broader community in your efforts to get every girl into school by embracing and advancing the concept of schools as safe haven and child friendly spaces, where the right of every child to learn and grow and play is respected. Reach out to civil society organizations, to the private sector, to children themselves. Encourage them in their shared responsibility. As we learned in the tsunami, when called upon and allowed to participate, people will rise to meet challenges that would otherwise be unmet.
Third, work together, together, and together. I will say it again, together. The days and values of competing organization are of another era. Whether through UN reform or the UN Girls Education Initiative, agencies and NGOs must work together to find every child out of school, create the social conditions to get them into school, and ensure the school environments that will allow every child to thrive and grow to their fullest potential. Surely we can refine our interventions and strategies, and surely some are better than others; but do we really think there is a strategy waiting to be invented, or discovered. It is time, in the words of Nike, to just do it.
And finally, development agencies and governments must step up, on both sides of the compact, on behalf of the young girls’ of the world. During my tenure as head of UNICEF I have seen the joy in the eyes of girls and their families when this has been the case. Girls will not be able to claim their right to an education without government commitment and donor support.
And so now I leave you with the question, “why not?” With all we know, with all we have learned, why do we continue to live in a world where girls and boys are kept from their most essential right to an education. I leave you to answer that one.
For us at UNICEF, there is no acceptable answers, no more excuses. If the world can mobilize so quickly and effectively against the forces of nature, it can surely mobilize quickly and effectively to make sure that every girl and boy will be in school before the year is out.