"Education is one of the most important means of empowering women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence necessary to participate fully in the development process."
—ICPD Programme of Action, paragraph 4.2
Education is important for everyone, but it is especially significant for girls and women. This is true not only because education is an entry point to other opportunities, but also because the educational achievements of women can have ripple effects within the family and across generations. Investing in girls' education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. Investments in secondary school education for girls yields especially high dividends.
Girls who have been educated are likely to marry later and to have smaller and healthier families. Educated women can recognize the importance of health care and know how to seek it for themselves and their children. Education helps girls and women to know their rights and to gain confidence to claim them. However, women’s literacy rates are significantly lower than men’s in most developing countries.
The education of parents is linked to their children's educational attainment, and the mother's education is usually more influential than the father's. An educated mother's greater influence in household negotiations may allow her to secure more resources for her children.
Educated mothers are more likely to be in the labour force, allowing them to pay some of the costs of schooling, and may be more aware of returns to schooling. And educated mothers, averaging fewer children, can concentrate more attention on each child.
Besides having fewer children, mothers with schooling are less likely to have mistimed or unintended births. This has implications for schooling, because poor parents often must choose which of their children to educate.
Closing the gender gap in education is a development priority. The 1994 Cairo Consensus recognized education, especially for women, as a force for social and economic development. Universal completion of primary education was set as a 20-year goal, as was wider access to secondary and higher education among girls and women. Closing the gender gap in education by 2015 is also one of the benchmarks for the Millennium Development Goals.
UNFPA advocates widely for universal education and has been instrumental in advancing legislation in many countries to reduce gender disparities in schooling. The 2003 UNFPA global survey on ICPD+10 showed that most programme countries formally recognize the important of reducing the gender gap in education between boys and girls.
UNFPA supports a variety of educational programmes, from literacy projects to curricula development with a focus on reproductive and sexual health. Because of the sensitivity of these issues, the focus and names of the educational programmes have gone through a number of changes over the past decades.
Gender issues now receive more attention than they did in past programmes, and instruction methods have changed, from a didactic approach to one emphasizing student participation and communications skills.
In Jamaica, through an alliance with the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation and funding from the European Union, UNFPA supported a programme that enabled thousands of girls to return to school following pregnancies and to acquire technical skills.
In a UNFPA-supported project in Bolivia, women are learning to read in their indigenous language while learning about reproductive health, safe motherhood and health insurance.
In Mali, a literacy project reaches adolescents both in and out of school, with a focus on migrant girls, domestic workers, victims of violence and abuse, and those living on the margins of society.
In Mauritania, UNFPA is collaborating on an educational initiative in four of the poorest regions of the country. The initiative aims to reduce the dropout rate by half and equip at least 5,000 girls with a range skills, from home economics and information technology to environmental preservation.