Education unionists call for free quality public education to help end poverty for women and girls in all their diversity

published 13 March 2024 updated 18 March 2024

The 68th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women takes place in New York from March 11th to the 22nd. The Commission is the most important global forum that works to advance gender equality and women’s rights and conditions, globally. A delegation of 17 women education unionists from 11 countries is currently in New York to call for public investment in education as a key step in ending poverty and fulfilling women’s rights.

The 68th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women will focus on the priority theme “Accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective”.

According to UN data, 10.3% of women live in extreme poverty today, and they are poorer than men. Progress towards ending poverty needs to be 26 times faster to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Investment is urgently needed.

Much of the poverty women face is rooted in their lack of access to education. Education is essential to ending poverty because it empowers people, gives them the skills they need to provide for themselves and their families, challenges gender norms, and enables individuals and societies to grow. Yet over 130 million girls are still being denied their right to education.

Education International advocacy at the UN Commission on the Status of Women

Across a series of events around the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the Education International delegation will stress t need to invest in free quality public education to ensure access for all, including the most marginalised and to ensure education workers, the majority of whom are women, are valued and respected.

On March 11, at the event organised by the International Trade Union Confederation and entitled “Women in trade unions fight poverty through a gender-transformative world of work”, EI Executive Board member Ann Mari Milo Lorentzen spoke about the challenges faced by early childhood educators. Lorentzen also highlighted the imperative need to invest in early childhood education to both support children’s early development and to empower women to explore career opportunities beyond caregiving.

On March 12, Canadian Teachers’ Federation President and EI delegation member Heidi Yetman spoke about the power of education to empower women at an event hosted by the University Women of Canada.

On March 13, the EI delegation will highlight the plight of girls and teachers in Afghanistan who have been forbidden from going to school and teaching since 2021. Education International will host an event to share the preliminary results of a survey among Afghan teachers on the state of the profession and of the right to education in the country since the Taliban takeover.

On March 15, Education International Deputy General Secretary Haldis Holst will moderate a session hosted by the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative together with UNESCO and UNICEF looking at “Accelerating gender equality in and through education”. Cross-sector partners and stakeholders will come together to assess the status of girls’ education and gender-transformative education policies, programmes and funding, discuss the bottlenecks and barriers that are hindering progress and propose solutions to help accelerate the movement.

The imperative to Go Public! Fund Education

Investment in education and in the teaching profession is critical to ensuring the quality of the education delivered in our schools. According to the United Nations, the world needs an additional 44 million teachers to achieve universal primary and secondary education. However, more and more teachers are leaving the profession, and few people want to become teachers. The alarming teacher shortage has been fueled by decades of chronic underinvestment in education and in the profession. The data underscores the severity of the issue, with education budgets falling in 65% of low- and middle-income countries since the Covid-19 pandemic. Even in upper-middle- and high-income countries, 33% are experiencing a decline in education budgets.

Education unionists around the world have mobilised to call on all governments to Go Public! Fund Education and ensure that teachers are valued and respected for the essential work they do.

“Our campaign is a global effort to ensure the right to education for everyone, everywhere, especially the most vulnerable children, most of whom are girls. It is also an effort to ensure that our profession, dominated by women in many parts of the world, receives the recognition and respect it deserves.”

Susan Hopgood | Education International President

Women power education

The teaching profession struggles with the heavy impacts of gender stereotypes and social norms that prevent the recognition of the key work of education professionals, especially women. The profession is feminised, with women over-represented in the workforce in many parts of the world. Since 2015, the proportion of female teachers has increased across primary, lower, and upper secondary levels. In pre-primary education, women make up 94% of the teaching force. At higher levels of education, their numbers dwindle. Women make up 68% of the teaching force in primary, 58% at lower secondary, 52% at upper secondary and 43% at tertiary level. At the same time, women are underrepresented in leadership positions in schools.

In 2023, the I-Best barometer measured the health and well-being of education staff. More than 26,000 education professionals participated in the research with over 72% of them being women. The results are alarming: education professionals face violence, harassment, and a heavy workload that prevents a healthy work-life balance. More than half of the participants have either experienced or witnessed violence in their workplace.

United Nations call to action for teachers and quality education

In response to the alarming global teacher shortage, the United Nations Secretary General convened a High-Level Panel on the Teaching Profession to guide government action for teachers and education.

The Panel’s recommendations echo many union demands, calling for teachers and education support personnel to be supported, valued, and paid their worth. Workloads and working conditions must support educators’ mental and physical wellbeing. Salaries must be competitive with those in comparable professions, and they must be decided at the negotiating table together with teachers and their unions. Gender pay equity must be ensured and women’s leadership must be encouraged.

The recommendations also call for educational working environments that are inclusive, safe, and non-discriminatory for teachers in all their diversity, including those with disabilities. Teachers must be protected against all forms of violence and harassment, including gender-based violence.

Teachers working in emergency contexts must also be supported. The Panel calls on the international community to establish a Global Fund for Teachers’ Salaries to ensure that teachers working in crises receive fair and timely salaries. Their work to teach and support the most vulnerable children is essential.

At the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and beyond, education unions will advocate for the recommendations to be implemented as a matter of urgency.