Perspectives on Education at the CPD

by Leah Dembinski

The author teaching English to high school students

With the priority theme as youth and adolescents, one might have expected discussions and statements during this year’s Commission on Population and Development to delve deeply into the topic of education. In actuality, very little was said from either country or civil society delegations about education, aside from its importance. There was little specification about, for example, how to define “quality education,” what ages should be attending, or whether or not it should be free. Instead, the priority themes were dominated by the sexual and reproductive health rights agenda. Luckily, there were some exceptions within the statements and side events that demonstrated deep thinking in the international arena about how to improve the educational systems around the world.

During the country statements, most delegates, in speaking of education, emphasized comprehensive sexual education as a priority of youth.  Some countries diversified their statements with commitments to improve access to vocational training, such as Uganda, and by mentioning the importance of quality education.  Algeria was unique in that the delegate talked about how they were working towards providing comprehensive free education, while only alluding to sexual education in their affirmation of the Cairo Programme of Action.
In between sessions of country statements, Dr. George Patton of the University of Melbourne gave the keynote address entitled, “The promise and potential of adolescent and youth health.” Interestingly, he said little about sexual and reproductive health, except for his analysis of the relationship between age of first menarche and age of marriage.  Instead, he discussed the importance of recognizing how formative schools are in the lives of children and young people. Schools, he said, are where children spend a significant amount of their lives, and so have a profound affect on other aspects of their lives.  He suggested the need to emphasize the connectedness of school, other settings young people often occupy, and how these places impact young people’s health, security, family, and learning.  Success in each of these areas hinges upon open communication with peers and adults, and acknowledgment of the interconnectedness between the areas.
This theme of interconnectedness in education continued on Wednesday, during a side event hosted by the Bahá’í International Community focused on “Youth and adolescents: Educating the protagonists of social change.” The two panel speakers were Mr. William Awinador-Kanyirige, a representative from the Ghana mission, and Alicia Zareey, a young woman who had done a lot of educational work for the Bahá’í community.  Both spoke of youth as drivers, or protagonists, of change and the need for quality education.  Mr. Awinador-Kanyirige addressed, in particular, the importance of inter-generational communication in the foundation of a young person’s identity and as a cornerstone in helping youth realize they are not just the beneficiaries but also the makers of the future.  Ms. Zareey highlighted the need to understand the capacities particular to youth: how youth are idealistic in the best way—they challenge the status quo and are flexible—and how youth are highly motivated because what they are fighting for is their own future.  She said that these two capacities can be both utilized and further developed within education that helps youth answer questions about their identity and how they contribute to society, as well as through involvement within their own community that allows them to put these capacities into practice.  
The next day Ms. Zareey gave a statement during the commission on behalf of the Bahá’í International Community that reemphasized these points. She strongly identified young people as participants who can contribute to the spiritual and material needs of their community, and who are not mere receptacles for information. Educational programs, she argued, should be designed to release the latent potential of youth and channel it toward the betterment of themselves and society. 
This statement was one of the only statements from the week that enumerated what was expected from education. Most statements were more similar to that of the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) whose representative started off in a promising manner, but failed to fully address education.  She mentioned the need for youth to achieve positive mental health and psychosocial well-being, and that the IAAP emphasizes education as one of the three key components to achieve these.  By the end of her statement, though, she had mentioned nothing about general education, only sexual education and the importance of modern technology in education.  She even went so far as to mention a vague superstition held by some people in Sierra Leone to emphasize her point that all generations need comprehensive sexual education.  This made me wonder how such arguments are not more widely considered to be completely ridiculous.
While the sum of the country and NGO statements at the CPD was not one that seemed to be in favor of emphasizing general education, the thoughtful statements from the Ghanaian representative, Algeria, the Bahá’í International Community, and a few other countries and NGOs gave me hope for the future of education.  It could have been easy to become overwhelmed by all the emphasis put upon comprehensive sexual education, but luckily we have had reports that the outcome document of the CPD is well balanced.  Some delegates are saying it is the best they have seen in over three years!