Unicef, the UN agency responsible for supporting children, is unambiguous about its worry for the state of women's education globally. It estimates that 130 million girls are out of school, with 49 per cent of countries still not having gender parity in primary education. Covid-19 has made the situation worse, and, in general, the more marginalised the student, the worse the predictions. The UN suggests that more than 11 million girls might not go back to education after the pandemic, particularly in low-income countries.
In light of these figures, the UAE and the UK won a diplomatic victory at the UN Human Rights Council yesterday, after both countries campaigned for and secured a resolution that fights against this worrying trend. Speaking about its significance, Simon Manley, the UK's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said: "For the first time ever in a UN document, the resolution calls for the international community to commit to 12 years of quality education for all girls wherever they are in the world." The UK has also announced nearly $22m in funding that will go towards researching the best ways to educate women in unstable parts of the world, including in Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Lebanon. The cause has also been a priority in Emirati diplomacy. Dubai Cares, a foundation that supports young learners in challenging regions, has this year allocated $2.5m to global initiatives tackling the issue.
This is, of course, about securing the individual rights of girls to receive an education. But on a wider level, investing in women's schooling is one of the most efficient ways of strengthening a society, no matter how damaged. It boosts public health, the economy and empowers women to make the decisions that are best for themselves and their families, and which only they should have the sovereignty to make. We should not forget that all of this profoundly benefits men, as well.
On a diplomatic level, the news also gives hope for two years of collaboration between friends on the UN Security Council. The resolution was driven by the longstanding partnership between the UK, which is a permanent member of the body, and the UAE, which last month was elected to serve as a non-permanent member. Securing a record achievement so early into its term brings hope that the Emirates could drive progress at a key part of the UN, one which is often known for impasse, rather than multilateralism.
The UN gets criticism for being a large, bureaucratic institution. But its record on education is laudable. Agencies such as UNRWA, which for more than 70 years has been reaching young people in Palestine, and Unicef show what the organisation can achieve for young people in need. As Covid-19 rages, the Taliban sweeps through Afghanistan and refugee crises around the world show no sign of abating, more of this spirit is needed.
Resolutions are only the beginning of a process, but they should not be dismissed. Getting consensus in an institution as diverse as the UN for an unprecedented move shows that members are willing to engage in this important conversation. It is surprising it has taken this long. As Mr Manley said when the news was announced, "Educating girls is one of the smartest investments any country can make."