Breaking Barriers: Why Free & Public Education Should be Every Womans Right

The 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (6-17 March) gets underway at UN headquarters in New York . Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elías
  • Opinion by Dana Abed (beirut)
  • Inter Press Service
  • The writer is Global Campaigns Strategist for Gender Rights and Justice at Oxfam International.

But what should have been discussed were the basic issues of gender equality in education. As more than 85% of the world is living under austerity, and with 70% of countries cutting funding to education services, access to education for women and girls is being devastated by the lack of public funding.

The gap between boys and girls when it comes to school enrolment continues to be major, and quite concerning. Data consistently shows – particularly in low- and middle- income countries – that girls from poor families are the children most likely to be, and remain, out of school.

And the cost of education is one of the main barriers for access – which raises the question of affordability when it comes to technological integration.

While technological innovation has the potential to support instruction and education governance, we cannot turn a blind eye to the reality of digital inequality, the possibility of increased fees, and the privatization of education.

That is on top of the existing risks that are associated with the use of technology, including online violence and abuse and the lack of digital protection for girls, further locking girls out of their rights to education.

Austerity measures, public funding cuts, and privatization severely limit the goal of universal education. In a report published last November, Oxfam found that austerity is a form of gender-based violence.

And during CSW67, we emphasized that access to public and quality education is fundamental to gender equality and the realization of the rights of women and girls.

Oxfam does not claim that austerity measures are designed to hurt women and girls, but as policy makers design those policies, they tend to ignore the specific needs of women and girls and turn a blind eye to the disproportionate impact that those policies have on our communities.

We’ve reached this conclusion by gathering evidence from around the world, which showed that governments do not prioritize the needs to women and girls. For instance, more than 54% of the countries planning to cut their social protection budget in 2023 have minimal or no maternity and child support.

In their misguided attempts to balance their books against a looming global economic crisis, governments are treating women and girls as expendable. Women, particularly those from marginalized racial, ethnic, caste, and age groups, are inherently discriminated against when it comes to economic and social opportunities and accessing available public resources. Additional cuts to inequality-combatting public services mean these groups are the hardest hit.

Cuts to both the public wage bill and public health and social protection services – measures that women and their families rely on for survival – mean that women and girls bear the brunt of this austerity because health, education, feeding the family, paying the bills, caring for children and elderly all fall most heavily onto them.

For example, cutting wages in the public work force – especially in sectors like health where women represent 90% of the workforce or education where they represent 64% of the workforce – will directly impact job security.

We must resist austerity and should instead be taxing the wealthiest corporations and people properly. A progressive tax on the world’s millionaires and billionaires could raise $1.1 trillion more than the savings that governments are currently planning to make through their austerity cuts.

With such funding, governments could adopt feminist budgeting across all sectors that put women and girls in all their diversity at the heart of policy making, including ensuring access to quality, and public education.

Feminist movements have for years pushed for bold alternatives to our neo-liberal, capital-oriented economies, and Oxfam raises its voice with them. The integration of technology in education must be looked at from an intersectional lens, taking into consideration barriers to access for girls and low- and middle-income countries, and should not come with an additional cost to the education bill.

We need to stand in solidarity with the women’s rights and feminist movements in demanding that our leaders stop peddling the gender-based violence of austerity as the solution and support more feminist progressive representation beyond identity politics.

We must resist creating societies that prioritize the needs of the most privileged at the expense of everyone else – and instead work to create communities and policies that reflect our diverse backgrounds and identities.

IPS UN Bureau

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