"We are all outspoken gender advocates"

"We are all outspoken gender advocates"

Maxime Forest is Jury member for the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education
  • The 2019 Prize International Jury is posing for a picture ©Maxime ForestThe 2019 Prize International Jury is posing for a picture ©Maxime Forest

Every year the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education honours outstanding and innovative contributions made by individuals, institutions and organizations to advance girls’ and women’s education. Maxime Forest, researcher and teacher at Sciences Po, was appointed Jury member in 2016 and 2018. With four other Jury members coming from four continents, they assess nominations to the Prize and present recommendations to the Director-General of UNESCO. He tells us about his experience.

What is your motivation in being part of the International Jury for the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education?

First, being involved in many EU-funded projects aiming at supporting gender equality in higher education and research (as EGERA, coordinated by Sciences Po in 2014-2017 and SUPERA, of which Sciences Po is currently evaluating partner), it was a great opportunity to share this experience in a more global forum as UNESCO. Second, I was interested to learn about the state of the play in involving and retaining girls and women in secondary and higher education worldwide: for instance, that along with more structural/institutional barriers, menstruations are one of the main causes for dropping out school in some developing countries or that tackling sexual exploitation is key to ensure full access to university also in relatively developed ones... Last but not least, as any international organization, the UNESCO is reflecting complex transnational politics about which I was interested to gain first hand experience.

You present recommandations to the Director-General of UNESCO on the two Prize laureates with four fellow members, coming from Guinea, Saudi Arabia, China and Argentina. What are the benefits of this geographical diversity?

Geographical diversity and representativeness is a founding principle of UNESCO, which applies to its internal politics as well as to its mission. Each jury member represents one of UNESCO geographical areas (I am standing for Europe and North America, and it happens that I am also the only male jury member). Beyond this formal aspect, the diversity of perspectives is evident, which is fed both by the cultural environments in which each jury member evolves, and our respective backgrounds or professional and personal experiences of gender bias and discriminations. Three of our jury members have a vast command of UNESCO initiatives in this realm and a long experience in dealing with programmes and strategies for girls' and women's education. Three of us are also political scientists and gender scholars, much interested in tackling power and organisational dynamics that reproduce gender inequalities. And we have all, either by training or experience, a strong interest for enhancing women's participation and agency in STEMs (Sciences, Technologies, Economics and Maths) in a digital era which is likely to deepen gender inequalities and bias. Nevertheless, now that we know each other, I can tell that individual choices are not based on cultural or geographical preferences and that what each of us stands for (sometimes vigorously) does not follow any cultural lens or pattern: we are all outspoken gender advocates with a concern for intersecting inequalities and sexual and reproductive rights, and we are all interested in groundbreaking methodologies and innovative approaches. Simultaneously, we share the same awareness about post-colonial or neo-colonial dynamics that can occasionally unfold through a gender sensitive agenda, and we are also concerned with maintaining a balance between innovation and outreach (some projects are less innovative but have a huge impact), as long as the objective is to challenge power relations and structural barriers to women's education.

You are part of the Prize's International Jury since 2016, what have been the most significant moments?

Jury members have been much involved in improving the quality of the selection and review processes, supporting the secretariat of the Prize with recommendations that have been largely adopted. Over the first two rounds, we sometimes struggled to shortlist a sufficient number of projects meeting our quality criteria in terms of innovation or sustainability. This is also linked to the fact that in some regions, a greater proportion of projects is led from the global North (thus usually having a broader outreach). Selected projects in Peru, Thailand, Egypt or Jamaica were all excellent, but the average level of applications not necessarily outstanding. Since, the whole process considerably improved, and this year we had to select from dozens of truly outstanding projects. Another aspect is that when assessing applicants, although we have relatively little time, we carefully go through supporting documents and references, occasionally spotting sustainability issues or unclear agendas with regard to promoting gender equality. When it happens, we easily reach consensus. I also believe we learn a lot from each other, acknowledging the expertise of each jury member on crucial aspects. Obviously, one of the most significant moments is when awardees make the most of their prize, not only of the granted amount( 50,000 dollars to each of the two awardees), which is relatively modest, but of the exposure it offers to disseminate good practices and innovative methods. The choice of the jury for the 2019 prize is still to be endorsed by the Director General at the moment but I believe that if we look at the selected projects since 2016, they present a good balance in terms of scale, geographical and thematic coverage, a strong commitment to an holistic approach of gender inequalities, and a generic preference for locally embedded projects involving the broader community.

The remarks and statements above do not necessarily reflect the vision or agenda of the UNESCO and of the jury members of the Prize but are those of the interviewee.

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