The Prime Minister of Norway and co-chair of the MDG Advocacy Group Erna Solberg speaks to Daily Development about why she feels so strongly about ensuring education for girls and the role that education can play in empowering women to demand their rights and improve their health.
DD: Your personal commitment to health and education for girls has been widely reported. Why do you feel so strongly about this?
ES: I firmly believe that when you invest in a girl’s education, she will support herself and her children and contribute to her community and her nation, charting a path towards a better world in which human rights are respected and there is dignity for all. Education empowers women. It increases their economic contribution, strengthens their political voice and boosts their influence across the board. That is why delivering education to all girls is so vital.
Educated girls and women have smaller families and healthier children, are less likely to die in childbirth, are more likely to see their children survive past the age of five, are more likely to send their children to school and are better able to protect themselves and their children from malnutrition, HIV, trafficking and sexual exploitation.
The numbers don’t lie. For every year a girl stays in school and learns, her future earnings increase considerably. An extra year of primary school education, for example, boosts girls’ future wages by 10–20%. A one percentage point increase in female secondary education raises the average level of gross domestic product by 0.3 percentage points.
Still, many girls are denied the opportunity to get an education. The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of gender parity by 2015 has not been achieved in a number of countries. In 2011, only 60% of countries had reached this goal at the primary level, and only 38% at the secondary level. Poor girls are particularly disadvantaged. Only rarely do poor girls in rural sub-Saharan Africa complete primary education.
Having a population of women in poverty and ill health is not only morally wrong. For communities, countries and the world at large, it is also an economic and social drawback. Sustainable growth cannot take place if 50% of the population is not participating in society and in the economy.
There are further challenges to achieving the three health MDGs (4, 5 and 6). Even though child and maternal mortality has been nearly halved since 1990, we need to do more. Women’s access to reproductive health services is not universal, as we have agreed it should be. These services are important not only for MDG 4 and 5, but also for achieving MDG 6. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, HIV prevalence among young women remains more than twice as high as among young men in the age group 15–24.
Therefore, we need to do more to improve women’s health. Education can play a significant role by empowering women to demand their rights.
DD: How can we get more children, particularly girls, to attend school so that they can realize their full potential?
ES: There are a number of reasons why girls don’t go to school. Often girls have to work, or the cost of schooling keeps them from going to school. A lack of female teachers or separate latrines for girls may also keep girls away from school. Girls who have dropped out of school need special catch-up programmes, but these may not be available.
Gender-based violence is a major obstacle to achieving gender equality. It is widespread and remains grossly underresearched and underreported. Gender-based violence is prevalent in times of social and political upheaval, crisis and conflict. Boko Haram’s heinous kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria is a recent example. In periods of conflict, schools may become ideological battlegrounds, placing girls at increased risk of sexual violence from parties to the conflict. School-related gender-based violence—in particular the violence against girls that occurs in and around schools—continues to be a serious barrier to the right to education and to achieving the MDGs. The need to provide safe school environments will be on the agenda at the next meeting of the MDG Advocacy Group in Rwanda in July.
The MDGs have been crucial to progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment, and we must build on this success. To help boost efforts for achieving the MDGs, including education for all girls and boys, the Norwegian Government will considerably increase the focus on education. This year we will scale up our investment in education in developing countries by around 15%. In the years to come, we are planning to significantly increase our spending on education. We will soon publish a white paper that describes Norway’s future education development policy.
In line with this policy, the Norwegian Government will particularly focus on girls’ enrolment in and completion of lower and upper secondary education. Improving the quality of education will be of primary concern. The education should be relevant for the development of society and the economy. We will have a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa.
We will explore innovative ideas and seek to improve results. We will work together with multilateral and bilateral partners to test result-based financing. Our main aim will be to get more children, especially girls, to attend primary, secondary, vocational and non-formal school, and to ensure that they complete school and achieve better learning results.
Without major efforts from the international community, girls will continue to drop out of school for lack of safe and supportive learning environments. Women will still marry young, and many will still die in childbirth for want of simple medical interventions. We cannot accept this.
DD: Do you see a link between health, poverty and education across the MDGs?
ES: Investing in education and health is a win–win situation for everyone. Good health and education are essential for empowering girls and women so that they can take their rightful place in society. Without advancing girls’ and women’s right to health and education, it will not be possible to realize our common goal of gender equality in the world. Research shows that education and health are vital to economic growth.
In an upcoming visit to South Africa, I will meet with Graca Machel, another member of the MDG Advocacy Group. I hope to learn from her experience more about how development efforts best can draw on these synergies.
However, the clock is ticking: with less than 600 days to go until the MDG deadline, the targets we have set will not be reached without greater investment in education and health.
Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg is co-chair of the MDG Advocacy Group, a group of eminent personalities who have shown outstanding leadership in promoting the implementation of the MDGs. The Group supports the UN Secretary-General in building political will and mobilizing global action to achieve the MDGs by 2015. Prime Minister Solberg has been leader of the Conservative Party since 2004 and was elected as Prime Minister of Norway in 2013.