The issue is under the microscope this week at the latest session of the Commission on Population and Development (CPD), taking place at UN Headquarters in New York.
Delivering opening remarks, Ms. Mohammed began by highlighting the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, who have been banned from high school and university, calling this “one of the gravest educational challenges of our time.”
She underlined how education is a crucial long-term investment for a sustainable future, for people and the planet.
A ‘triple crisis’
However, she said countries are facing “a triple crisis in education – one of equity and inclusion, quality and relevance, to equip current and future generations with the skills they need to thrive in a fast-changing world.”
The millions of children worldwide who are not attending school, represent just one challenge for the international community.
Equally concerning is the fact that many students simply are not learning, she said, as nearly 70 per cent of children in poorer countries cannot understand a basic text by age 10, mainly due to chronic factors such as poverty and malnutrition.
Transform educational systems
“Ultimately, we need to reimagine and transform our educational systems if they are to be fit for purpose,” Ms. Mohamed said. “We need to learn how to learn throughout our lives, and learn to live in peace with one another and with nature.”
She stressed that success will also require examining the link between education, technology and demographic trends, and acting upon the opportunities and challenges they bring.
She called for initiatives to get all learners “climate-ready” and connected to the internet and the world of digital innovation, which is especially important for girls and women from the Global South, who are the most excluded.
The international community will also need to consider how to benefit from the world’s “demographic diversity”, with some countries having a median age of around 50, and others, just 15. This also applies to older persons, who will comprise the majority of the global population by 2050, and to persons with disabilities.
Ms. Mohammed highlighted the need to ensure inclusive education for women and girls, and to encourage them to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields.
‘Life changer’ for girls
The gender theme was picked up by Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), who described education as “a door opener” and “life changer”, particularly for vulnerable women and girls.
“When provided with the knowledge and skills they need to know and claim their rights, better educated women are more likely to be healthier, marry later and to plan the number and spacing of children,” said the sexual and reproductive health agency chief.
“They are more likely to use prenatal care, to vaccinate their children and to seek health services when their children need care. They are more likely to participate in the formal labour market and earn higher incomes.”
Education also reduces the likelihood of child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and other harmful practices, and it lowers the risk of gender-based violence.
Sexuality education critical
Ms. Kanem underlined the need to protect and defend education for all, including comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), which equips adolescents with information and skills to develop positive, healthy relationships.
CSE helps girls avoid unintended pregnancies; it also encourages both girls and boys to stay in school, among other benefits.
“It makes perfect sense: give people the information and power to take charge of their own reproductive rights and choices, and development outcomes improve,” she said.
Impact of population dynamics
In a pre-recorded message, the head of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), Li Junhua, addressed how population dynamics impact education, using the millions out of school, as well as the low proficiency in maths and reading as examples.
He said in some parts of the world, where public financing capacity is limited, a rapidly growing school-aged population makes it more difficult to achieve education goals.
Meanwhile, other places have experienced relative declines in this sector of the population, resulting in less pressure on education budgets, which has opened up opportunities to boost investments geared towards young people and adults alike.
Learning from the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed fault lines in education systems.
“Children and young people in low and lower-income countries were deprived of access to learning as these countries saw large cuts in public spending on education,” said Mr. Li, underlining the need to support these government investments.
“This will require investing in digital literacy and closing the digital divide, drawing the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. And we must continue expanding access to the internet and digital technologies for education.”
Depression and drop-outs
The pandemic, together with conflict, climate change and rising food insecurity, have further deepened inequalities, said Xing Qu, Deputy Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
This situation has led to a dual crisis affecting learning and well-being, he noted, again citing the staggering out-of-school figures and factors mentioned previously, such as unintended pregnancies.
“Added to this are increasing rates of depression and stress among young people in many contexts – fuelled by fear of what the future holds, among other factors. The toll of these stressors on health and well-being are leading to increased student drop-out and teacher shortages,” he said.
Support lifelong learning
Mr. Li recalled that at the UN’s Transforming Education Summit last September, nearly two-thirds of countries expressed concern over the well-being of their teachers and students.
In response, UNESCO outlined strong action in three key areas: closing the gender gap in school enrollment and participation; supporting education on the issues of puberty, relationships, and sexual and reproductive health; and strengthening efforts to embed health and well-being in schools, including through ensuring provision of nutritious school meals.
“Moreover, learning doesn’t stop once a child leaves the classroom,” he added. “This is why we must also promote learning throughout life – for everyone: for active citizenship, employability, health and well-being – and the cohesion of our communities.”
About the CPD
The Commission on Population and Development (CPD) was established nearly 80 years ago by the UN Economic and Social Commission (ECOSOC), one of the six main bodies of the global Organization.
This current session – its 56th – will conclude on Friday.