ROME – On the eve of International Women’s Day, the Vatican’s top diplomat condemned banning girls from receiving an education for what he called “ideological” reasons, saying education is a fundamental right that ought to be respected.

Speaking to a panel of women diplomats March 7, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin noted that, “due to various recent crisis and sometimes also as the result of certain ideological decisions, many children have not had the education they deserve.”

“In most cases, young girls are those paying the greatest price, and this is not without serious consequences for the whole of society, as education is the indispensable basis for the development of the person and for peaceful human coexistence,” he said.

For this reason, “the goal of equal access to education for all still requires strong efforts and remarkable political commitment,” Parolin said, voicing hope that “we may continue to work together, also at the international level, to address today’s educational catastrophe.”

Parolin spoke in a video message sent to participants in a March 7 panel for International Women’s Day titled, “Promoting peace through education,” which was organized by the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences Auxilium and the Australian Embassy to the Holy See.

Observed annually on March 8, Women’s Day is intended as a global day of celebration honoring the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women around the world, and it is often used as an opportunity to advocate for greater gender equality across the board.

Panelists at the event included Parolin and a handful of women ambassadors to the Holy See. The embassies of Australia, East Timor, Ghana, Spain, Bolivia, France, Albania and the European Union were represented, with ambassadors providing updates what their countries are doing to promote gender equality.

Parolin’s remarks come at a time when debate over girls’ access to education has been gaining steam as access to girls education has been restricted in several countries throughout the world.

In Afghanistan, girls were barred from attending school after the Taliban takeover of the country in August 2021.

Though the Taliban initially promised to respect women’s rights, they gradually expanded restrictions on women’s activities, including school, prompting outcry from human rights activists and the international community.

Since they were banned from attending school, some young girls have been attending clandestine classes online in a bid to continue their education.

In response to the restriction on Afghani girls’ education, UNESCO announced earlier this year that it was dedicating the International Day of Education, observed on Jan. 24, to Afghanistan’s women and girls.

Meanwhile, in Iran, a string of suspected poisonings of schoolgirls have sparked fresh protests in Tehran as the unexplained illnesses have affected hundreds of schoolgirls in recent months.

Protests and civil unrest erupted in Iran last year after the death in police custody of a young woman named Masha Amini, who is believed to have been killed while in the hands of the country’s morality police for incorrectly wearing her hijab.

Thousands of women and men took to the streets to protest against the government after news of Amini’s death broke, demanding greater respect for women and the overthrow of the country’s Islamic leaders, leading to the apparent abolishment of Iran’s morality police, or Guidance Patrol, in December of last year.

In the wake of the deadly protests, finally quelled by a brutal police crackdown, Iran’s attorney general said the country’s hijab rule would also be evaluated. Yet Iran’s judiciary chief said Monday that women violating Iran’s strict dress code would be punished.

The recent poisoning of schoolgirls has renewed fears among Iranian citizens that girls are being targeted, either as a punishment for last year’s protests or by hardline Islamist groups opposed to girls’ education.

Iran’s health minister has said the girls have suffered “mild poison” attacks, and the country’s interior minister said Saturday “suspicious samples” had been found and were being studied, but so far no clear motive has been ascertained.

Meanwhile, during Pope Francis’s visit to South Sudan last month, several young women educated at a Catholic missionary-run girls’ school in Rumbek voiced appreciation for his advocacy on behalf of women and said they hope to break the mold in a country where less than five percent of girls attend school.

In his message for Tuesday’s panel, Parolin said the event highlighted the “interdependence between education, peace and women,” and noted that Pope Francis has often praised women for the role they play in peacemaking.

“Education is not only a human right, but also an indispensable driver of peace,” Parolin said, saying education “often provides and environment where fundamental values for dialogue may develop and where tolerance, respect and mutual understanding may mature and flourish.”

He said education is not only a “crucial component for personal development,” but is one of “the best and most powerful ways to promote peaceful coexistence among peoples and nations.”

“Education is an act of love, it is giving life,” he said, saying education not only embraces all aspects of the human person, but “it is also dedicated to indispensable, personal, moral and spiritual growth.”

“Today, however, we note that access to education is still lacking in many places and has sometimes been uncertain or put at risk in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Parolin closed recognizing the role many women play in promoting peace in society and among nations, their role in international peacemaking efforts, and in conflict prevention and diplomacy.

“For this reason, women’s and girls’ access to education is of utmost importance and should be guaranteed,” he said, and applauded the work of educators, especially women, in a rapidly changing world.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen