Former Finnish President Tarja Halonen insists good education and gender equality are crucial to reducing world poverty, so we must fix the fact that too many women are illiterate and invisible, writes Sara Al-Dhahri.
DESPITE WORLDWIDE initiatives, such as those focused on ending poverty and expanding access to education, humankind continues to struggle with challenges related to education, poverty, inequality and global insecurity.
While it is true that not everyone who has access to an educational system avoids poverty, the vast majority of today's poor never even made it through elementary school — two out of every five individuals are illiterate and violence is on the rise.
According to the World Bank, around 8.5% of today’s world population might be extremely poor by the end of 2022 and poverty is now falling at a relatively slower rate of barely 2% per year. Today's population is poorer than that of the 1990s when 1.9 billion people – or 36% of the global population – lived on less than $1.90 per day back then.
There is a direct correlation between poverty and hunger in Africa. A quarter of the world's hungry people live in Africa. Africa’s population is malnourished and more than 30% of children in Africa have growth anomalies such as stunting as a result of chronic malnutrition, making it impossible for them to benefit fully from receiving education.
Education is a great tool for breaking the cycle of poverty since it helps people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. It has the potential to aid those in need by providing them with pathways to employment, resources and the development of employability skills that can allow them to break out of poverty.
These global issues were the main drivers behind inviting a specialist in the field – former President of Finland Tarja Halonen – to spend an entire day with a number of executive masters in international relations and global politics students at Geneva University on 9 December 2022.
The United Nations' sustainable development goals, their influence on the global system and the significance of poverty eradication, education and inequality were central to discussion themes.
From 2000 to 2012, Halonen was President of the Republic of Finland and a pioneering female leader in the 20th Century. After serving as President for a total of 12 years, her political insight and know-how are immense.
She began by explaining the origins of SDGs by drawing on her considerable background in multilateralism and international politics. SDGs evolved from their original name of "millennium development goals" to their current form over time.
Halonen focused on four of the UNs' 17 sustainable goals:
- SDG one — eliminating poverty;
- SDG four — quality education;
- SDG five — gender equality; and
- SDG 16 — peace, justice and strong institutions.
Most of her presentation focused on the first goal: why poverty is the underlying cause of most global problems and how to begin addressing it. For instance, excellent education and gender equality go hand in hand with reducing poverty since these and other SDGs are interconnected.
First, getting an education is a great approach to better one's life and eradicate poverty in the long term since it increases one's earning potential and decreases wealth disparity.
This implies that people in poverty have a more difficult time bettering their situation due to obstacles such as physical ability, religion, race and caste. If we zoom down on more vulnerable regions, however, such as Africa, we see that 67.4% of adults from the age of 15 in 2021 have the necessary literacy skills to read and comprehend a short phrase.
In 2022, Africa had a population of little over 1.4 billion people. Its literacy rate is lower than that of a country like Russia, for example, where, by 2021, a total of 143.4 million individuals can read and write at a 99.69% proficiency level.
There is a significant gender gap in the world's illiterate population, with women making up a disproportionate share. Some nations have greater female literacy, such as Burkina Faso (64%), while in other countries like Niger and Afghanistan, only around 30% of women are literate.
However, gender-based violence (GBV) continues to be a problem for women in Burkina Faso, Niger and other nearby countries. This violence frequently occurs in societies where sexism and patriarchy are prevalent and this issue might serve as a roadblock for women, preventing them from exercising their rights.
Worldwide gender equality will likely take four more generations. Inclusively, 388 million women and young ladies are poorer than men and boys, with the lion's share living in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Southern Asia, and the Middle East. The pandemic has raised the perils of GBV over the world, with 13 million additional young girls likely to become child brides, on top of the 100 million females who are currently in danger.
If women don't figure in social equations, how can they be treated equally? Increases in sexual violence, domestic violence, early and forced marriages, manipulation, and maltreatment of girls and women are being fueled by conflict and displacement in the Sahel area.
Not only in Africa but also in different parts of the world such as Afghanistan, the international community was caught off guard by the rise of the Taliban’s action toward women in Afghanistan.
The Taliban's statement on suspending women from attending college is emblematic of their larger discriminatory practices. They have restricted the mobility of women and girls, prevented most women from participating in the labour market, and banned them from using public utilities since August 2021.
Ultimately, these restrictions keep Afghan women and girls within their homes, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
As efforts to activate their crucial role at international and local levels are a priority for Tarja Halonen, she firmly recognises the value of women's contributions to development.
In addition, in line with the fifth SDG, women must have an all-encompassing goal of growing their participation in the labour market and maintaining their rights in the fields of health and education as part of the decision-making process.
Women have an important role in bringing peace to situations of armed conflict, yet their contributions are often overlooked. The effectiveness of UN peacekeeping actions and the maintenance of peace depend on the recognition and incorporation of women's various perspectives, experiences and abilities in all aspects of UN peacekeeping operations.
Despite progress in the number of women in the highest levels of political leadership, Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reports that gender inequalities persist in several areas.
However, following a jump of 21.3% of women occupying ministerial posts in 2021, development has stalled, with just a small increase to 21.9% in 2021. The data also shows that the number of states with no women in government has grown, defying a recent declining trend.
Amid record global military spending of $2.1 trillion, funding for women's organisations in combat zones has declined. Presently, women only make up about 19% of peace negotiators in UN-led projects.
Halonen emphasised the significance of women's participation in peace talks and the value of having female leaders of countries present at the negotiations table.
Being one of the first in this field as a member of the Secretary-General's High-level Advisory Board on Mediation of the UN, Halonen stressed the importance of the role of women in the peace process.
Women's involvement in peace-building processes is more than simply achieving parity. Women hold just 18.9% of parliamentary seats in conflict and post-conflict countries, compared to 25.5% worldwide, a still-inadequate figure.
In order to address the root causes of conflict, it is necessary to rethink peace-building and come up with solutions that consider the requirements of all parties involved in conflicts. The goal is to usher in an era of permanent global peace and security by dismantling the systems that sustain and promote conflict. Many of the ills from which people in war zones and poorer parts of the world suffer are solvable through education, which should be a basic human right.
One may say that education is the key to achieving all 17 SDGs.
Since 1960, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has ratified the Convention against Discrimination in Education, which acknowledges the right of all students to an education. Furthermore, the UN's International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has recognised access to education as a human right since 1966.
In conclusion, by expanding access to high-quality education for all, the fourth SDG has the potential to be a powerful tool in the fight against extreme poverty and in raising living standards in developing countries.
Lack of education, gender inequality, poverty and global insecurity are the main reasons why states should invest more in education rather than military and armaments warfare. Education should be a national priority in the fight to eliminate all causes of poverty, gender inequality and insecurity.
As South African statesman Nelson Mandela once said:
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Sara Al-Dhahri is an international officer at the humanitarian affairs department of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). You can follow Sara on Twitter @saradhahri.
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