"IF you want a significant return on your investment, invest in education, particularly in girls' education," recommends Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). She may not be a financial expert, but her calculation is flawless. Several countries are following her advice and more girls are now going to school the world over. Still a yawning gap exists in school enrolment across the genders in many countries.
Launching the UNICEF report "Progress for Children: A Report Card on Gender Parity and Primary Education" in Geneva recently, Carol Bellamy stressed that education is more than just learning. "It is a life-saver, especially for girls, in many countries." According to the report, when girls get basic education, they are more likely to grow up healthy, have stable household incomes, ensure the survival and health of their children, and also make sure their children go to school.
The report focusses specifically on two of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2000 - universal primary education by the year 2015, and the elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education by the end of 2005. "These two goals are the lynchpins of all MDGs. If we do not succeed in them, we will not succeed in the others," says Bellamy. Of the two goals, gender parity in education is a prerequisite in meeting the goal of universal primary education.
The UNICEF report gives a country-wise account of the progress made in achieving gender parity and universal primary education, and details the wide differences across regions and among and within countries. The 30-page report indicates significant progress on both counts - 86 per cent of the world's primary-school-aged children are in school, up from 82 per cent four years ago. The number of children who should be in school but are not has dropped below 100 million for the first time; it was 115 million in 2001.
But, according to the report, far too many children remain out of classrooms. Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia have a long way to go in achieving universal primary education. South Asia has the highest number of children out of school - more than 42 million, or about 37 per cent of school-age children in 2001.
In terms of getting as many girls as boys into primary schools, the world has made impressive progress. As many as 125 out of 180 countries, for which data are available, are on course to reaching gender parity by 2005. However, the global average masks huge pockets of inequity. Three regions - West Asia/North Africa, South Asia and West/Central Africa - will not meet the gender parity goal.
Bellamy stresses that the current rate of progress is "too slow" and to reach the goal of ensuring all boys and girls are in primary school by 2015, "accelerated efforts" will be needed in many countries. The report points out that efforts need to be focussed on the 55 countries that appear to be way off the mark to meet the target.
Gender disparity actually favours girls in two regions, Latin America/the Caribbean and East Asia/Pacific. In Haiti, for instance, there are more girls than boys in primary school, but over 40 per cent of all primary-school-age children are denied education. Thus, while addressing the gender gap, other barriers to children's school participation need to be addressed as well.
Projections made by UNICEF, based on school attendance for 81 developing nations, show an overall gender parity index of 0.96 for 2005, meaning that for every 100 boys in primary school there are 96 girls. According to the report, this "technically puts the world on track to meet the goal of gender parity in primary education". But in reality there is "a long road still to travel," especially since 54 per cent of all children not attending primary school are girls. Says Bellamy: "A quantum leap is needed both to break down the barriers keeping girls out of school and to make school available to all children."
In many poor countries, heavy loads of domestic work are thrust on girls of all ages. Hours of cleaning the house, cooking and waiting on their fathers and brothers leave them little time for studies, leading many to drop out of school. Many girls also are pulled out of school at puberty and forced into marriage. Girls seeking education face continued opposition, much of it from their own families. Whenever girls have a chance to go to school, they take it. A number of girls and women in Afghanistan, for instance, risked their lives under the Taliban regime to attend school. Denying girls an education is one of the most short-sighted, counter-productive things any nation can do. Education, especially for girls, is what allows families to break the cycle of poverty for good, says the report.
According to the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Global Campaign for Education, young women with a primary school education are twice as likely to stay safe from Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS). For every year of schooling completed, their earning is 10-20 per cent higher. Evidence from the past 30 years shows that educating women is the single most powerful weapon against malnutrition; even more effective than improving the supply of food. UNICEF's drive to educate girls is an essential part of the United Nations' primary MDG - the eradication of poverty. Unless primary education is universally available, the U.N.'s other MDGs - stopping AIDS, halving the number of people living in poverty, or ending the preventable death of children - will not be achieved.
A fundamental barrier to increased access to education is poverty. Children from the poorest 20 per cent of households in the developing world are on an average three times less likely to go to primary school than those from the wealthiest 20 per cent. This average, however, masks huge disparities among regions and countries. In the CEE/CIS (Central Eastern Europe/Commonwealth of Independent States) region, for instance, the poorest children are 1.6 times more likely to be out of school, but they are five times more likely to be out of school in the Republic of Moldova and Kazakhstan.
Another important factor determining a child's chances of going to school is the mother's education. Mothers of some 75 per cent of children out of primary school in developing countries did not go to school. The proportion varies dramatically from region to region - from 28 per cent in East Asia/Pacific to 80 per cent in West/Central Africa, South Asia and West Asia/North Africa.
The prevalence of HIV/AIDS, civil conflict, child labour, child trafficking and natural disasters all have a clear impact on access to schools and all tend to affect countries with already weak educational infrastructures.
The report says that making universal primary education and gender parity in schools a reality will require a radical shift in thinking and policies. All countries must begin to view education as a fundamental human right, not as an option when budgets permit. For example, Kenya's decision to abolish fees for primary schools, following in the footsteps of Tanzania and Uganda, is a dramatic shift in government thinking.
Bellamy stresses that international aid for education needs to be "drastically increased", noting that an extra $5.6 billion will be required every year to achieve the goal of universal primary education. Only five countries - Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden - have fulfilled the pledge made by the developed countries to devote 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product to official development assistance.
Unfortunately, the funds that the world's wealthy nations are prepared to provide fall well short of what is needed for every child in the world to have access to quality, free education, which could be made available for a fairly modest price: the cost of two and a half days of global military spending. Currently, for every dollar of national income, rich countries give only one-quarter of a cent as aid of all kinds. Basic education gets 3 per cent of that.
The goal of universal primary education, the report concludes, "is realistic, affordable and achievable. It is our children's birthright".