Behind the scenes: How UIL’s female staff promote its mandate

To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, UIL’s gender focal point, Samah Shalaby, highlights how her colleagues progress gender equality in their work

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The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), located in Hamburg, Germany, is one of UNESCO’s eight education institutes. As its name suggests, UIL’s area of specialization is lifelong learning. Through its capacity-building activities, knowledge sharing and dissemination of data, the Institute provides support to UNESCO Member States in the field of lifelong learning with a focus on learning ecosystems, skills for life and work, and inclusive learning. UIL operates at regional, national and local levels to facilitate learning across sectors. Through its partnerships, it works towards helping the global community achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on inclusive, equitable and quality education for all.

The team at UIL – both its female and male staff – are equally committed to mainstreaming gender equality across the Institute’s activities and programmes. The occasion of International Women’s Day is an opportunity, however, to shine the spotlight on a few of the women working at the Institute, who operate ‘behind the scenes’ to shape the future of gender-transformative lifelong learning and ensure it becomes a reality. In line with the essential elements of lifelong learning articulated in UIL’s recent handbook on the theme, the UIL colleagues interviewed here address the many facets of lifelong learning as well as the diverse target groups and age brackets that the concept was designed for. They do this to promote empowerment and community engagement.

Ms Chung Dolma, for example, a specialist in family literacy, has worked at UIL for the past seven years as part of its family and intergenerational literacy and learning (FILL) programme. FILL promotes an approach to learning that considers the importance of multi-generational involvement and aims to address the literacy skills of all members of a family and a community. With UIL’s technical support, Ms Dolma points out, countries including Ethiopia, the Gambia, Mozambique and Germany have designed and implemented diverse FILL models which are appropriate to their local contexts. 

FILL also greatly contributes to advancing gender equity. The majority of programme participants, Ms Dolma explains, are women – generally young mothers, who benefit from the programme in two key ways. First, by receiving resources and support, they have the opportunity to not only promote their child’s learning but also their own. Second, by engaging fathers and other family members in childcare and education, FILL programmes highlight the importance of adults’ positive involvement in a child’s overall development. By sharing the onus of responsibility for childcare among the extended family and community, women are given more opportunities for self-empowerment. More recently, Ms Dolma and her FILL colleagues have been putting the finishing touches on a FILL course, which will soon be freely available to anyone who is interested in creating inclusive learning opportunities for families and communities.

Another major focus of UIL’s work is on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), which UNESCO defines as a lifelong learning process that ‘empowers learners of all ages to make informed decisions and take … action to change society and care for the planet’. Ms Edith Hammer, a specialist in ESD, points out the importance of applying a gender-sensitive lens when building capacities in the context of climate change, noting that women and girls are the most vulnerable to its impacts. Climate education can empower women and girls with the knowledge and skills that are necessary to become leaders in climate action – within their families, communities and at the global level. Moreover, Ms Hammer stresses, women must be afforded the possibility to develop green skills, thereby giving them access to new green labour markets and green entrepreneurship opportunities.

Climate education is one of the newer priority areas at UIL, one Ms Hammer says she is proud to be a part of. ‘Within the UNESCO Global Network for Learning Cities (GNLC) and its thematic cluster on ESD, we support member cities around the world in implementing ESD at local level,’ she explains. ‘We also conduct research on cities’ engagement in climate action following a lifelong learning approach and promote gender-sensitivity in the related activities.’

Building an inclusive learning system requires a provision on quality learning opportunities for people of all ages and in diverse settings. Ms Mo Wang, UIL’s specialist in learning and education for older people, highlights the Institute’s recent work in this area, which is the result of its new cooperative agreement with Shanghai Open University (SOU). ‘The second phase of our research project focuses on higher education institutions’ responses to the learning needs of an aging society,’ she explains. More specifically, the project will examine how universities worldwide are addressing a critical global social trend that will shape societies in the years to come.

The research will also consider how gender inequality affects older generations, particularly with regard to earnings, pension coverage and caregiving responsibilities. ‘Previous research has shown that socio-economic barriers, including funding constraints, are one of the major barriers for older adults’ participation in higher education programmes,’ Ms Wang explains. ‘The second phase of the research project will therefore contribute to the development of inclusive policies and practices that support the lifelong learning of all older adults, regardless of their socio-economic background, gender or other factors.’

The second phase of UIL’s project with SOU comprises research on older people’s learning and employability, intergenerational learning and older people’s digital skills development. ‘Our aim is to identify and collect best practices from higher education institutions in the three thematic areas across the five UNESCO regions,’ she explains. ‘We also aim to advance scientific knowledge on the dynamics of the higher education sector and its contribution to the promotion of lifelong learning, particularly for the older adult population.’

Lifelong learning and adult learning and education, through their different learning modalities, have the power to change people’s behaviours and mindsets, leading to more inclusive – and gender equal – societies. In recognition of this, UIL will launch in the next weeks a new series – UIL Gender Talks – to provide a platform for dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders and audiences, who will reflect on gender issues in daily life and how lifelong learning can be structured to support gender equality. More information on UIL Gender Talk will soon be available on UIL’s gender webpage. Until then, I wish all of you a happy International Women’s Day!

Samah Shalaby is UIL’s gender focal point and a member of the Institute’s Inclusive Learning Team

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