I thank the committee for the invitation to attend. It is a great privilege and opportunity for us to make a presentation on the issue of education and to answer any questions members may have. I am the CEO of Plan International Ireland and a member of the Dóchas board.
Inequality is reaching new extremes. Significant increases in inequality of both income and wealth are leading to larger gaps between the rich and poor and men and women. This is creating serious obstacles to overcoming poverty and exclusion, and stopping us creating a more equal, peaceful and sustainable world. With women and girls over-represented in the rank of the poorest, this is also reinforcing gender inequality and blocking progress for women and human rights. In most countries, children born into rich families will go to the best possible schools and are very often privately educated. They will have small class sizes and well trained teachers and will get good results in state examinations. These students will have multiple opportunities to grow their inherited opportunities. Girls and boys born into poverty, suffering from ill health and malnutrition, arrive at the school gates already disadvantaged, if they arrive there at all. They will then struggle with overcrowded facilities that lack trained and qualified teachers, textbooks and toilets. Inequalities of income are compounded with other inequalities of gender, ethnicity, disability and geography, therefore exacerbating exclusion. Pulled out of schools before their brothers, millions more of the world’s poorest girls will continue to have their life chances hindered by an education that is all too brief.
The barriers to girls participating in and completing education are wide-ranging and intersectional. They include high rates of child and early forced marriage, early pregnancy and lack of information on and access to sexual reproductive health and rights services, school-related gender-based violence and harmful gender norms which result in discriminatory curricula, textbooks, pedagogy and educational policies. This has a significant impact on girls’ ability to complete their basic education, both primary and secondary, and to be able to participate in the labour force, have their views heard and access positions of power. On the other hand, good-quality public education for all can be a powerful engine for greater equality. Beyond boosting incomes, good education is an engine for equality in other important ways. I refer, for example, to the fact that it reduces poverty. This is because a good education makes the likelihood of higher incomes and lower poverty much greater. It boosts opportunity for all with the possibility for children from poor families to end up better off than their parents. It brings society together as schools can be places where the barriers of inequality are broken down. This will give young people the tools to go into the world and build more equitable societies. It supports democratic societies. Education offers individuals the tools to exercise their right to an equal say in respect of the structures and policies that govern their lives, which boosts democracy. It promotes stability and peace in a time of crisis. Education in emergencies and protracted crisis breaks the cycle of hopelessness, frustration and anger. It offers protection and provides a visible sign of normality for children, particularly in camp situations.
Good education has considerable power to increase equality between women and men. Education can help tackle gender disparities in wages, poverty, reproductive autonomy and political power. It can dramatically improve outcomes for women and their children. The more educated girls are, the more power they will have over their lives, particularly over when they marry and how many children they have. If all girls in sub-Saharan Africa and south-west Asia completed secondary education, there would be a 64% drop in child marriages. I also heard recently that if one could keep girls in education up to the age of 18 years, one would eliminate child marriage almost overnight. These are significant gains. The more educated mothers are, the healthier they and their children are. It has been estimated that if all girls completed primary education, there would be a 66% reduction in maternal deaths and a 15% reduction in child deaths. Good quality education has the power to challenge traditional social attitudes and ensure that girls and boys know that they are equal.
Plan International Ireland fully endorses the submission from Dóchas with which we are actively working to promote the right to free, public and high-quality education for all. After a number of years in which education was not prioritised in Ireland’s overseas aid policy, the commitment to spend at least €250 million over the next five years, as noted in the new policy for international development, A Better World, and the recent pledge at the United Nations General Assembly to support education in emergencies with €6.5 million for the organisation Education Cannot Wait in 2019, are positive signs that education is back as Ireland’s priority. We warmly welcome the acknowledgement of education as a priority in A Better World and the recommendation to increase funding for education, especially girls’ education, by this committee. However, this should not be the end, but the beginning.
We must talk about Brexit at this time. In a post-Brexit scenario there is an opportunity for Ireland. With the UK’s departure from the EU leaving a leadership gap in the context of education, Ireland can seek to fill this leadership role by promoting the importance of investing in education for global development and stability, in line with our own experience. Ireland is a clear example of the positive impact investment in universal education can have on a country’s economic and social development. As a European leader on education, Ireland could join Canada in the push for education for all, especially girls, by driving the promotion of gender transformative education as key in realising progress in fighting inequality. Investing in gender transformative education is vital to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Gender transformative education seeks to explicitly challenge and eliminate gender bias and discrimination not only in the classroom, but in society more broadly.
We are here to seek the committee’s support for the education sector in overseas aid, particularly the education of girls and the many benefits this will bring. We also encourage a focus on those who are furthest behind in order that we can we reach them first and seek to ensure that Government funding goes to public education services rather than the private sector. These points will be outlined in more detail by my colleagues.
Again, I thank the committee for the invitation to today's meeting and look forward to answering any questions members may have.