UNESCO director-general: ‘World poverty has a female face’

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Despite some progress made in promoting gender equality, negative trends persist and some developing countries have even seen regressions, Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of International Women's Day.

Irina Bokova is a career diplomat from Bulgaria. She served as her country's deputy minister of foreign affairs, where she was responsible for European integration.

She is currently director-general of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

She was speaking to Georgi Gotev, EURACTIV's senior editor.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.  

Ms. Bokova: This time on 8 March we are celebrating not just another Women's Day, but the centenary of this annual opportunity to reflect upon the condition of women around the world. In your capacity as director-general of UNESCO, the UN organisation that promotes education, science and culture and which has 193 member countries, how would you assess the situation of women today?

I have to say that for our organisation, UNESCO, womens' rights are a priority. We have two so-called horizontal priorities, which cover all spheres of our activity: I'm referring to education, science, culture and communications. One of those priorities is Africa, and the other gender equality. And indeed, 8 March is a time of reflection, of analysis, of what could we do more and better in this field.

I think we need this retrospection for two main reasons. On the one hand, over the years there has been serious progress in many areas. What I mean is that gender equality, the access of women to education, to knowledge, to governance has improved, compared to ten or twenty years ago.

But there are also a number of negative trends, in terms of persisting violence against women, even regression in some areas. I mean that in conflict zones, women are often the target of extreme violence, with rape being used as a weapon of war, and that in many areas of the world there is inequality in access to education.

But there are problems even in Western societies. The Spanish EU Presidency recently had as one of its priorities domestic violence against women. Wealthy societies are not immune to abuse of women…

Indeed. This problem exists in these societies and we should not pretend we don't see it.

Are women the biggest victims of the economic and financial crises? The present crisis appears to be deepening and is hitting very hard developing countries, first with soaring food prices and now with surging oil prices and spiralling inflation…

There is no doubt about it. Most of the time, world poverty has a female face, both in developing countries and in the developed world, where for example single mothers live in poverty. But the problem is more acute in developing countries.

We know well that in those societies, when a family decides which one of the children to send to school, they usually send the boy. The situation of girls' education is worsening south of the Sahara Desert. Before 1999, according to statistics of 100 children leaving school early, 79 were girls. This year they number 82 and this reveals a deepening of the crisis.

There is a wave of 'Jasmine Revolutions' taking place across North Africa and the Arab world. It may be hard to guess how many difficulties this push towards democracy will encounter. Nevertheless, do you see this as a chance for women in the region, who are typically badly discriminated against, to lead better lives?

I strongly hope so. The developments are very positive. I think it's the natural result of the democratic aspirations of peoples all around the world, who are becoming more and more interdependent, and who communicate and share information more than ever before.

It would be extremely disappointing if after such a democratic surge the situation were to deteriorate. I'm thinking of Tunisia: it was the first country in the region where after independence [in 1956] women obtained equal rights, the right to vote and to be elected, but then the situation deteriorated, as we know. It would be extremely disappointing if something similar were to happen again.

I notice that this time, on the occasion of 8 March, UNESCO has put forward its initiative 'Women Make the News 2011'. Can you explain the scope of this initiative? If I understand correctly, the campaign is not so much about making room for women in journalism, but about reminding media across the world not to neglect gender issues in their coverage, and to highlight the accomplishments of women.

Indeed, we have a wider scope with this initiative. Our celebration of 8 March started with the L'Oreal-UNESCO award for women in science, which was given to five women scientists from the five continents. We are extremely proud that two of our prize-winners of two years ago have obtained Nobel Prizes in the meantime. Only 8% of Nobel Prizes in exact sciences are held by women, and we hope that through our activity, the work of women in this field will yield more recognition.

But this is only an example. We would like to highlight the individual accomplishments of women in all spheres, not only science or education, but in civil society, in all areas. Positive examples give a lot of inspiration to millions.

What could UNESCO and the EU do together? Two weeks ago, you visited Brussels and met with Council President Herman Van Rompuy…

I think we have the same strategic goals as the EU, and this was the message of my visit, during which I expressed that we should sign a strategic partnership between UNESCO and the European Union, covering the Millennium Goals for development, for education, for cultural diversity, for media freedom, for freedom of speech – all these goals for UNESCO are also priorities and values of the European Union.  

Talking about gender equality, I think we also have an identical agenda. Our cooperation is developed, but I am sure that the potential is much greater. This was the purpose of my visit, and the purpose of having opened the first-ever liaison office of UNESCO to the European Union. I put a lot of ambition into this initiative.

You are from Eastern Europe, from Bulgaria. How difficult were the twenty years of transition for women in Eastern Europe?

To a large extent, women in Eastern Europe have taken upon themselves the hardships of transition. It has not been easy for them, but as a whole, women in Eastern Europe are very combative, with the process of democratisation and change unleashing the huge energy they had. Today, many such women hold high office in business, in politics. So on the one hand, the transition was very hard for women in Eastern Europe, but it also gave them a huge chance to develop their potential.

In your country, Bulgaria, where presidential elections are due next year, analysts say that several women stand a good chance of being elected…

I hope there will be strong women candidates. I would like to say from my experience from the campaign for director-general of UNESCO that there have been very strong women candidates, and it was a privilege for me to compete with them.

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