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UN: Education Can Elevate Status Of World's Women

Women throughout the developing world continue to struggle for social equality and parity in salary levels. A recent conference at the United Nations provided a forum for international educators and non-governmental organizations to discuss ways to improve educational opportunities and increase leadership roles for women in the 21st century. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan reports.

United Nations, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the last quarter century, women have achieved unprecedented positions of power. Yet the accomplishments of this relatively small group are overshadowed by the impoverishment of many.

To try to spur action on improving the condition of the world's women, more than 250 educators, students, non-governmental organizations, UN officials and representatives from the private sector gathered last Friday. Their discussion focused on how education can be used to elevate the status of women in society.

Marlene Johnson, of the Association of International Educators, called NAFSA, said women are often sensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable in society. Johnson said because of this, they need to play a greater role in decision-making.

"It is urgent that women are part of that leadership mix. And leaders require both a basic education and knowledge -- a basic skill set -- but they also require their own vision for the larger community."

Women who receive higher education have a special obligation to share their knowledge to benefit their societies. Gillian Sorensen, a senior official in the UN's Secretary-General's office, explains the significance of schooling for women.

"For higher education is not just a credential. It is expertise. It is stature. It is confidence. It is the ability to earn a living. It is the ability to better educate one's own family and to make a greater contribution to society. It is, in a word, empowerment.

Sorensen said that all countries -- small and large, rich and poor, can reap the benefits of educated women.

At present, many of the world's women face a grim reality. According to UN statistics, women comprise the majority of the world's 3.1 billion poor. They handle the brunt of household and family labor and also disproportionately carry the workload in subsistence farming and informal jobs.

The UN statistics show that women's unpaid work accounts for approximately twice that of men. And their salaries and wages average only one third that of men. Violence against women remains a global epidemic. Many women, particularly those in the rural sector, suffer from preventable diseases because of unequal access to healthcare. Maternal and infant mortality as well as illiteracy among women remain unacceptably high.

Improving these physical conditions, however, is only part of the solution. Changing the way people think, says Angela King, special advisor on gender issues and the advancement of women to the secretary-general, represents the biggest challenge.

Yet even in places where they had ostensibly achieved equal status to men, women are struggling. The recent political upheavals in East and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union have caused mayhem for many women.

Breda Pavlic, of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), says that these women have often received high education under the old system, but they must now find a new place in society.

"With the change of the system, we feel that there is some kind of a void, that a lot of the women in these countries simply have been left out. That is to say they either cannot really pursue now the kinds of careers which they would normally, in other conditions, have perhaps gotten in enterprises and society at large."

Because of the uncertainty, she says that women from that part of the world face a real danger of being pushed back into traditional roles. These include caring for their families by doing housework, where they form an invisible part of their societies.

Pavlic, who is from Slovenia, encourages women to study "hard sciences" and mathematics so they can participate in the technologically driven economy of the 21st Century.

While few would dispute the importance of education for women, many tend to overlook an even more fundamental problem -- the sexist design of the educational system itself. Alison Bernstein of the Ford Foundation in New York says that the fight for access must be coupled with the transformation of educational procedures and content.

Bernstein calls for "feminist leadership" for the 21st Century --where both men and women share the common values of power sharing, teamwork, knowledge gained through experience as well as through study, and the balancing of work with other life responsibilities.