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World: UNICEF Report Finds 65 Million Girls Are Being Denied Access To Basic Education

In its annual report, released today, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) says international development efforts are drastically short-changing girls. The report says 9 million more girls than boys throughout the world are not in school. But the report also highlights the progress being made in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

Prague, 11 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is warning that more girls than boys throughout the world are being deprived of their right to basic education.

In its annual State of the World's Children report, UNICEF says 121 million children worldwide do not attend school -- 9 million more girls than boys. The report says an estimated 65 million girls are being denied basic education, increasing the likelihood they will live in poverty or die young.

UNICEF says that, in the absence of accelerated action to get more girls into school over the next two years, global goals to diminish poverty and improve living standards in the developing world will "simply not be reached."

UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy said today that international efforts have been, as she put it, "glaringly inadequate at getting girls into school in too many countries." Bellamy warned that gender discrimination is hampering development efforts throughout the world.

UNICEF spokesman Damien Personnaz told RFE/RL that educating girls is one of the most effective tools for improving the economies and raising the productivity of developing countries.

"We based our surveys on the following statement -- that education is not only a matter of knowing to write and read or count, but is also a matter of better educating your own children afterwards and to protect them from all kinds of things, such as HIV/AIDS or prevent [them from catching] diseases and so on. If you invest in sending a girl to school, then you will be sure that this investment will pay [off], because this girl will tend to be [a] mother, and this mother will be able to educate her children and therefore the whole family much better," Personnaz said.

The UNICEF study says that each extra year of maternal education reduces the mortality rate for children under the age of five by between 5 and 10 percent.

The report says that in most industrialized states, there is what it calls a "reverse gender gap," where boys drop out of school or get lower grades than girls. But in large parts of Asia and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is reversed, with some 24 million girls failing to go to school last year -- that is, 4 million more than in 1990.

The report says this partially reflects a sharp drop in foreign aid.

Personnaz told RFE/RL that donor countries weren't interested in putting money into education in developing countries because of the lack of immediately visible results.

"What we've been trying to do is to explain that if you invest in education, it is actually much better value because it's part of the social setup which actually goes together with the economic factors. You cannot dissociate the economic growth from the social growth, and education is one of the main components of the social growth. That's what we keep telling donor countries. I think this trend has changed since 2001. Donor countries are also now tending [to change] or are changing their priorities into giving a little more money for education. But there's much more to be done," Personnaz said.

The UNICEF study says that throughout the 1990s, aid flows to developing countries declined, despite promises for extra-funding and a 1996 pledge to ensure universal primary education by 2015.

The UNICEF study says country-to-country aid to education in 2000 was $3.5 billion, which represented a 30 percent drop compared with a decade earlier.

The report advocates universal free basic education. It says that when families in developing countries must pay for their children's education, boys usually get preference or -- worse -- children are not sent to school at all.

UNICEF's Damien Personnaz says, "The most obvious barrier is poverty. If you have a family in a poor country, in a poor community, which has four or five children, they will always focus on sending the boys first [to school] and the girls afterwards, because the girls are seen as being able to help the mothers, being able to help [with] the younger brothers, and they are also seen as being much better [off] because of the early marriage business. This is very true in South Asia."

But Personnaz says the most difficult obstacle in many parts of Asia and Africa remains religious prejudice.

"There are a lot of religious leaders who do not think that to send a girl to school is a big priority. This is actually the most difficult barrier to overcome, and we've been doing so in working with the communities involved in many countries in South Asia, in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and we've just proven that to send a girl [to school] is not going against the religious beliefs, but [on the contrary], we'll have a much better outcome in the well-being of the family, of the community, and therefore the whole society," Personnaz said.

The UN's 2000 "millennium goals" to reduce poverty commit the international community to achieving parity for boys and girls in primary education by 2005. However, most experts acknowledge that this goal is unlikely to be met.

But one success story the UNICEF report highlights is Afghanistan. During the rule of the Taliban regime, girls were banned from going to school, and women were not allowed to work. Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, and with the help of the international community, conditions have radically changed.

Sharad Sapra, UNICEF's representative in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that there are 4.2 million children currently in schools throughout Afghanistan, of whom one-third are girls. Sapra says the situation is better now than in pre-Taliban times.

"This proportion of boys and girls in school is bigger and better than what it was even before the Taliban times. So, the important thing to remember is that in 18 months, the government of Afghanistan and the Ministry of Education have been able -- with the support from the international community -- to eliminate the disparity between boys and girls that was created by the Taliban. We also have more children in school now than there were at any given time, and between last year and this year, more than 360,000 more girls entered into the primary school system," Sapra said.

Sapra says it is promising that the increase was seen in all of Afghanistan's provinces. He also points out that there is growing community support for Afghan girls and women who want to study and work.

"When we look at the urban areas and the ratio of schoolteachers -- men and women -- 55 percent of the schoolteachers in the urban areas in primary schools are women. It's in the rural areas where about 70 percent are men and 25 to 30 percent are women. It is clearly visible, when you are in Afghanistan, that more and more women are going to work and more and more women are joining the workforce. There are instances where people with extreme points of view have threatened women or girls not to go to school. But in all these cases, what is interesting is that the community has supported the women and girls, and helped them continue into the new age."

But UNICEF's Sharad Sapra says that, despite what he calls "a tremendous change," there is still much work to be done in Afghanistan.