The primary NE/AR in South Asia is the lowest in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, progress has been made. Over the period 1980 to 2001, NE/AR improved by an average of 0.9 per cent a year, the second-largest regional rate of increase in the world.
But children's participation in primary education remains at an unacceptably low level. In 2001, South Asia accounted for more than a third of all the world's children out of school. India alone accounted for 26.8 million of the 115 million children not in primary school globally (23 per cent), while Pakistan had 7.8 million (7 per cent) and Bangladesh 3.8 million (3 per cent).
There is a wide variation in the educational provision of the region's countries. It ranges from Sri Lanka, which has already achieved universal primary education, and Maldives, which was close to it until the tsunami wiped out 20 years of progress in 20 minutes, to Afghanistan and Bhutan, where little more than half the primary-school-age population is in school.
Despite an AARI in primary participation by girls that has been more than twice as high as for boys throughout the period 1980 to 2001, the gender gap is still unacceptably wide, with only 94 girls in school for every 100 boys. The gender gap was particularly wide in Afghanistan in 2001 while UNICEF projections for 2005 show Pakistan with only 83 girls in school per 100 boys and Nepal with only 89. Social structures that include caste and in which women's status is low are a barrier to girls' education in the region, particularly in India and Nepal.
Bangladesh has been the most successful in increasing the participation of girls in primary school and, according to UNICEF projections, is on target to meet gender parity by 2005, along with Maldives and Sri Lanka (the projections here are pre-tsunami).
Most countries of the region will require radical strategies and bold measures if the huge numbers of children out of school in South Asia are to be significantly reduced.