In the few months remaining before a new set of development goals are set to be adopted in the United Nations to replace the Millennium Development Goals, specialists in many fields will be drilling down into why some of those MDGs have fallen short — sometimes far short — of their aspirations, especially in the lives of women and girls. The Sustainable Development Goals that will replace the current goals have already been greeted with skepticism by numerous governments and many experts, who say that 17 unwieldy goals with 169 targets by which to measure them — compared with the eight succinct MDGs — is a recipe for more failure.
This is not to say that there have not been some specific successes, in primary education with parity for girls, for example, and some overarching transformations since 2000, when the MDGs were adopted. Those goals, taken seriously in many developing countries, prove that concerted action on global challenges is possible, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said.
Furthermore, scrutiny of the lagging goals has often led to open discussion of an issue that has been taboo for years, if not decades: the obstructions to progress, especially in areas of human rights, that some cultural attitudes pose.
The most recent boldly stated report to emerge in this vein is a background paper from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, which focuses sharply on the denial of education to girls and the violent attacks they face going to school.
“According to United Nations’ sources, more than 3,600 separate attacks against educational institutions, teachers and students were recorded in 2012 alone,” the paper — to be presented to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and a Human Rights Council panel discussion in June, reported.
“Attacks on schools in at least 70 different countries were documented during the period 2009-2014, with a number of these attacks being specifically directed at girls, parents and teachers advocating for gender equality in education. In addition to targeted attacks, many more girls around the world routinely experience gender-related violence and other forms of discrimination that limit or prohibit the free exercise of their right to education.”
Despite the right to an education, the base on which girls can build a better life and begin to enjoy other rights and opportunities, girls are far from achieving equal access to education, particularly at the secondary level, by which time many have been forced into early marriages or withdrawn from schools because of the dangers of sexual violence and other threats.
“Education continues to be denied to girls as a result of cultural and social norms and practices that perpetuate harmful stereotypes about appropriate roles for women and reinforce the idea that education is ‘wasted’ on girls,” the background paper says. “Gender-related violence and other forms of discrimination within schools also contribute to a high rate of school abandonment by girls. Alongside the socio-cultural factors that give rise to violations of girls’ human rights, there are other legal, political and economic obstacles that may limit the full implementation of the right to education for girls.”
There has been no shortage of news about the terrors girls have been facing lately, many from attacks and subjugation by Islamic extremists. Hundreds of schoolgirls have been abducted by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria; more than 100 children, including girls, died in a Taliban assault on their school in Peshawar, Pakistan, not too far from where Taliban militants shot Malala Yousafzai in 2012; there have been numerous poison attacks on girls in Afghanistan; and girls in Somalia were forced in 2010 from their schools to become “wives” of Al Shabaab rebels. In India, girls were abducted and raped at a Christian school in 2013. (Another Christian school, in New Delhi, was vandalized just this month.)
The gruesome stories now being told by girls and young women who have escaped the fighters of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq — and the extremists’ own propaganda publications — are adding horrific detail about the stated policies of a violent, totalitarian regime that prides itself on the subjugation and sexual abuse of girls and women.
In some places, the situation has reached the point where any attempt to build schools or provide alternate education for girls is more likely to harm them and not advance their lives.
“Attacks on girls’ education have a ripple effect — not only do they impact on the lives of the girls and communities who are directly concerned, they also send a signal to other parents and guardians that schools are not safe places for girls,” the UN human-rights paper says. “The removal of girls from education due to fears for their security and concerns about their subsequent marriageability may result in additional human rights violations such as child and forced marriage, domestic violence, early pregnancy, exposure to other harmful practices, trafficking and sexual and labor exploitation.”
Girls living in relatively normal, peaceful societies are not immune to denial of schooling and other basic rights, including reproductive health in their adolescent years and sex education to bring down the high rates of teenage pregnancies and pregnancy-related deaths in developing countries. But these subjects often also provoke strong resistance and denial, although girls are the future mothers whose level of education matters to communities and countries.
The human-rights background paper fully explores the various resolutions, conventions and agreements that are supposed to be supportive of the rights of not only girls but also of all people. Governments often sign on to conventions and then abide by them narrowly or not at all, even though the first responsibility rests with the nation — a true example of the “responsibility to protect.” The UN paper, which draws on many expert sources, finds that the world body’s reporting on attacks against girls and girls’ education is inadequate and that available data is incomplete.
“[While] the international community has focused its attention on the development of specific programs and strategies designed to increase the availability, accessibility and quality of education for girls, however, attacks against girls accessing education persist and, alarmingly, appear in some countries to be occurring with increasing regularity.”