The US Withdrawal from UNESCO: Undermining Girls’ Education
by Frances Vavrus
October 18, 2017
The Trump administration has made yet another devastating decision undermining girls’ and women’s education, and this time its effects will be felt throughout the world. Last week, the White House revealed that the U.S. would withdraw its support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), an institution established in 1945 with the inauguration of the United Nations itself.
It is sadly ironic that the UNESCO announcement was made the day after the United Nations’ International Day of the Girl Child, an annual event on October 11 that draws attention to the challenges facing girls around the world and to advances in the achievement of their human rights.
Claiming the decision is due to UNESCO’s “anti-Israel bias,” it also provides further evidence of an administration opposed to multilateralism and ignorant of the vital role of UNESCO in promoting gender justice in education.
UNESCO’s work extends far beyond its most famous arm, the World Heritage Committee, which identifies and monitors World Heritage Sites. In fact, gender equality is one of UNESCO’s two “global priorities,” and its five primary objectives include the achievement of “quality education for all,” the development of “inclusive knowledge societies,” and the enhancement of “science knowledge and policy.”
UNESCO links its work on education and gender in a number of ways.
For instance, its Institute for Statistics plays a critical role in documenting gender gaps in access to education, and its International Bureau of Education works closely with governments and ministries of education to improve curriculum development, teacher education, and assessment. These efforts have resulted in the publication of numerous resources for educational practitioners and guidelines for policymakers. For example, UNESCO has recently been involved in the development of a resources to promote gender-responsive STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curricula for African and Asian countries, and it partnered with UN Women to develop the Global Guidance on Addressing School-Related Gender-Based Violence report (2016), a comprehensive review of national policies and school-based practices in different countries aimed at creating safe spaces for all children.
UNESCO is among the most important multilateral institutions engaged in addressing gender equality in education around the world.
They and many others are working to ensure that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals related to education (Goal 4) and gender equality (Goal 5) do not remain mere aspirations but are instead converted into policy and practice. The U.S. must remain a part of multilateral efforts to achieve these goals because it cannot claim to have achieved any of them, not quality schooling for all girls and boys as called for in Goal 4, or the elimination of gender-based violence and the provision of sexual and reproductive health services as demanded in Goal 5. By looking at the U.S. through an international lens, we see a nation whose administration is walking back from multilateral commitments to education and gender equity at a time when other nations are moving toward embracing them even more firmly.
— Frances Vavrus is a Professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development where she serves in the Comparative and International Development Education (CIDE) program.
— Photo originally appeared in Jolkona’s report on girls’ education in India