The global community — a vast majority of national societies and experts from multiple disciplines — is more aligned on the beneficial and transformative effect of education on the lives of individuals and their communities than almost any other intervention. For those people subject to the crippling effect of inequality, education is touted as the panacea, lifting them out of poverty, away from high mortality rates and saving them from violence.
I am part of this consensus. But — and this is a big but — what we mean by education and its practical application on the ground needs to be reassessed, refocused and redefined.
Reassessed because what doesn’t enjoy the same overarching consensus as the power of education is the need for education, and the investment in it, to be about more than access to primary school. It is about continuing into secondary school and beyond. To be truly transformative, to reach the hardest to reach, to make sure we support those adults who have never had an education and have already fallen through the cracks, education must be about lifelong learning.
Refocused because education is not simply about mathematics and literacy. It must also initiate students — to use the jargon of global development — into “21st century skills.” That means things such as citizenship, leadership, confidence and self-esteem. And it must address the challenges people face in the 21st century such as, for instance, the issue of body confidence for girls.
Redefined because although the UNESCO definition of education encapsulates three key pillars — formal, nonformal and informal — formal education tends to overshadow other possibilities. Action plans are consequently narrowed and funneled into supporting education in school-based, formal settings, from which naturally follows the policy, the funding and the effort. Yet nonformal education can, and already does in many instances, play a role in surmounting what are often seen as intractable challenges such as gender-based violence, conflict and sustainability.
You would expect me to argue these points as chair of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, an organization that has been a proponent for more than 100 years of the importance of a life filled with learning, citizenship and self-directed education. Independent research backs this up, with findings suggesting that to reach her full potential, a girl must have five things by the time she is 12: five friends, a girl-only space to meet them, a slightly older female role model, citizenship rights, life skills such as health information, and savings.
I have been in my role for six months now and I was inspired to run for office because these things are the very essence of guiding and scouting. They should also be the very essence of education — of the education we want all our children to receive.
Yet since the Beijing Declaration almost 20 years ago, the inroads to ensuring education is delivered to its full effect have been superficial compared to the task remaining. To live up to the expectations set in Beijing, I believe we not only have to reassess, refocus and redefine education, we must, if empowerment is to be our end goal, place empowerment at the center of education.
And rather than the governments, the nongovernmental organizations, the experts and the funders deciding what’s important and what works, we must look to the people seeking an education for answers.
In the guiding movement, we constantly ask girls and young women what matters to them. The most recent testament to this was the selection process of the new chief executive of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, with a panel of young women involved in the interview process and the appointment of Anita Tiessen, who will join us in April from UNICEF U.K.. Imagine a Fortune 500 company getting customers to interview prospective CEOs!
Similarly a global consultation with girls and young women identified violence against girls and women to be the issue that matters to them most. It led to the launch of our “Stop the Violence: Speak Out for Girls’ Rights” campaign, which is already running in more than 50 countries and engaging girls and boys, women and men in the eradication of gender-based violence.
An essential component of this campaign is a nonformal education program developed with U.N. Women, “Voices Against Violence.” At its heart, it supports girls and women as well as boys and men to understand their rights and develop and apply the skills to realize those rights. It addresses the root causes of violence and challenges gender stereotypes and discrimination — not something to which many of us can boast of having at school, and which is still not part of most school curriculums, even though the World Health Organization has described violence against girls and women as an epidemic. The curriculum is now being rolled out in partnership with U.N. Women and will reach an estimated 800,000 children and young people in 12 countries over the next two years.
Imagine if we could put empowerment on people’s required reading lists. For me, and for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts around the world, empowerment is about being able to reach your full potential. And here, I think, is the addition to the usual conversation about empowerment: It is about being able to support and transmit those skills, opportunities and attitudes to the people and communities around you, through leadership, citizenship and with confidence.
Imagine a world full of great and committed teachers, of opportunities to learn from your peers on topics that are important and could make a difference to your life, in ways that make sense to you and are delivered in safe spaces. Then imagine a world where girls get married and have children later, gender-based violence is eradicated, families are healthier, poverty unheard of and a sustainable way of life is enjoyed by all.
Change the way we think about education. Invest in it more broadly. And we won’t have to imagine this brave new world. We will be living in it.
What can development organizations centered around education do to emphasize long-term empowerment of beneficiaries? Share your views by leaving a comment below.
Interested in women’s empowerment and gender equality? Learn about U.N. Women’s Empowering Women — Empowering Humanity: Picture It! campaign in the lead-up to Beijing+20. Devex is a proud media partner.