By Sophie Wang
The realization that it has already been six months since I began my internship has just started to sink in. I have just arrived back in Canada and am now wrapping up the final week of my work with the UN Girls’ Education Initiative remotely. Over the past weekend, I’ve slowly started to unpack the two suitcases I’ve been living out of for the past six months, yet it feels like just last week that I was packing them up and getting ready to move to New York.
My time with UNGEI and in New York has been an incredibly inspiring and educational experience. I feel I have not only furthered my skills and knowledge academically and professionally, but also grown so much on a personal level as well. I met some of the brightest people in the world during my time in New York and made unforgettable friends and memories. I have also learned a great deal about myself and the type of work I wish to pursue in the future. During my first internship in international development, I worked in the field on a grassroots HIV/AIDS and comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) advocacy project with local youth and local schools in Kenya, essentially as close to the ground as possible. This time, working in the high-level space in New York was an excellent complement to my previous experience, as it allowed me to gain an entirely new perspective on the global discourses guiding ground work.
I can’t claim to know everything about working in the gender and education space, but I have certainly learned a great deal during my time with UNGEI. Gender and education issues are not solely about gender or about education, but rather about the political, social and economic marginalization that certain groups face–it is really about the deep-rooted systemic barriers and inequalities of access. The simple narrative that “sticks” from what emerges is the need to tackle “girls education”, and hence UNGEI’s name, because the truth of the matter is that in most (but not all) cases, it is the poorest rural girls from ethnic groups and have disabilities that are most marginalized when it comes to access to education and learning even when they are in school.
From my participation in high-level discussions, I’ve learned that the largest and most unavoidable bottleneck to achieving gender equality in and through education is the lack of funding, not the lack of motivation to tackle harmful gender norms or even the lack of knowledge on which gender norms are indeed harmful. This is not an issue that is unique to the education sector, or to tackling gender issues, but rather to every single sector and issue area which exists. It is the quintessential problem underlying the study of economics–scarcity. Then, this begets the question of where should funding come from? Should it come from appealing to the “good-hearted donations” from donor countries? Is there not a role that the restoration of equity–of a level playing field from colonial legacies–should play? Or should countries be responsible for funding and managing their own national budgets?
On another note, though, the reality of scarcity leads to yet another critical question in economics: How should resources be allocated? My time at UNGEI has taught me much about which intervention options are available for addressing gender issues in education, while little about which work best, though at no fault of my teachers. There is simply a lack of evidence out there on the cost-effectiveness of interventions as well as a lack of comparability between evaluations of different interventions. Thus, it is often hard to tell which interventions work best, although we know that many need to work in concert.
Despite all I have learned, I have clearly finished my internship with more questions than I began it with. However, I believe they are more complex and critical questions than the simplistic ones such as “who are the actors involved” I have since answered, and I look forward to a lifetime of continuous learning in finding their solutions.