UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova Speaks on the Importance of Education for Girls
On Wednesday, February 10th the Women in Public Service Project and Cesar Chavez Capitol Hill High School hosted UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova. Ms. Bokova spoke to an audience of approximately 30 female students from grades 6-12. Ms. Bokova spoke about the importance of youth voices in policy decisions at the national and international levels and shared her life experience as a female policymaker in her role as the current UNESCO Director General, as well as the former Minister for Foreign Affairs for Bulgaria and former Ambassador to France and Monaco. Joan Massey, CEO of Chavez Schools, gave the opening remarks on the work of Chavez students in researching and writing on public policy issues in their communities. This was followed by Gwen K. Young, Director of the Women in Public Service Project, who shared aspects of her career in international development throughout Africa and introduced Director General Irina Bokova.
Ms. Bokova has been a leading advocate for ensuring quality education for all and has made gender equality her own personal priority. Ms. Bokova began her remarks by describing her youth growing up in rural Bulgaria, “My mother came from a poor family. She was a school dropout. She dropped out of school because she had her children. But then she went back to school and eventually she became a doctor. She showed me how important education is for women.”
Ms. Bokova emphasized the values of determination, stating, “Many times women fail…Like men fail – you may fail. It happens. You may fail in an exam. I have failed. But you should not take this as the stopping point.” She continued by discussing the many positive ways that women can lead and be an agent for change within their own communities.
Ms. Bokova also stressed the importance of education in ending the global gender gap, stating, “We cannot achieve gender equality without girls getting a good education.” Developing a love for life-long learning was also a lesson she shared with the audience as education and knowledge are the mechanisms that allow people to lead impactful lives. “I think education is the most important thing that you can do to make a better life for your family and for yourselves.” To add to this, Ms. Bokova encouraged young women across the globe to connect with each other and share the values that tie one another together.
During the question and answer period, Cesar Chavez students asked Ms. Bokova to comment on how she has dealt with being a woman leader in an often male-dominated field. In her response, Ms. Bokova acknowledged the difficulties but commented that she has never let this disparity impact her professionally. One student asked, “Have you met women who hold themselves back?” In her response Ms. Bokova stated, “I have met many women who hold themselves back. I have met many women who lack confidence – not because they lack talent. You have to have the self-confidence to know what you can achieve, what you want to achieve.”
Additional questions encompassed Ms. Bokova’s career as a diplomat and the importance diplomacy plays in building relationships between countries, preventing wars, and reconciling differences. Chavez students also shared their interests in pursuing careers in public policy, citing a desire to tackle societal issues within their own neighbors and communities. In closing, Ms. Bokova was able to impart the values of perseverance and resilience in pursuing one’s passion and encouraged women to continue pushing the boundaries.
Ms. Bokova has been the Director General of UNESCO since 2009 and was reelected for a second term in 2013. She is the first woman and the first Eastern European to hold this position. Last week, she was officially nominated to the candidacy of United Nations Secretary General by her native country of Bulgaria. The current Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will be stepping down at the end of this year. The position of UN Secretary General has never been held by a woman.