The State of the World's Children 2004

Girls left out, countries left behind

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© UNICEF/HQ97-0821/LeMoyne

The Millennium Development Goals call for all children to have access to and complete a good quality primary education by 2015. Yet the Goals specify that gender equality in education must be met by 2005. Without eliminating gender disparity in education by that date, the goal for universal education will not be met by 2015.

All regions have increased overall enrolments – the world average was 81 per cent by 2002 – but the numbers can be deceiving. Regional variation is enormous. Latin America and the Caribbean enrolment rates are close to North America and Western Europe, 94 per cent and 97 per cent respectively; South Asia lags behind at 74 per cent and sub-Saharan Africa languishes at a mere 59 per cent.

Looking at overall enrolment rates hides other gaps. Net enrolment is actually decreasing even though the overall numbers went up. There are more children in school but there are also more children out of school. With the annual growth of the school-age population there are simply not enough schools. This is particularly seen in sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for a proportionately larger number of the world’s non-enrolled primary-school-aged children – 41 million in 1990 and 45 million in 2002.

The failure to educate girls can be overlooked when reviewing the data. Girls are often ‘invisible’ – not reported or underreported. Countries report averages and conceal very serious gender disparities between internal regions, and economic and ethnic groups.

Girls drop out

The gender gap in primary school enrolment has narrowed during the 1990s. The ratio of girls’ gross enrolment rate to boys’ in developing countries increased from 0.86 to 0.92.  But girls’ primary-school-completion rates lag, 76 per cent compared with 85 per cent for boys.

Hidden crisis

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as in many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, there is a ‘hidden crisis’ in girls’ education. In spite of good attendance and enrolment rates, the increasing number of girls who drop out of school indicates a serious problem. Enrolment decreases from primary to secondary schools. Where there is parity in enrolment, there is often a disparity in education quality. This is played out in school completion and learning achievements, where often there is a wide gap between boys and girls. For those girls who go beyond primary and secondary schooling, often they are left out of leadership roles and income parity with men.

Funding shortfall

None of the world’s wealthier countries developed without making significant investments in education. More funds must be injected into the education budgets of developing nations before there is substantial growth in development. Individual countries have the lion’s share of responsibility. Yet only eight developing countries in the period of 1999 to 2000 committed more than a fifth of their government spending to education.

Industrialized countries and international financial institutions have so far failed to meet their end of the bargain. Despite 1990 commitments made at the Jomtien Conference and the World Summit for Children to provide extra funds for education, aid declined from a peak of $60.6 billion in 1991 to $49.6 billion in 2000 – a reduction of 18 per cent. Bilateral funding for education has plummeted even further with a general decline through the decade followed by a dramatic cut in 2000 that left aid in 2001 at $3.5 billion – a full 30 per cent lower than in 1990.

Instead of being a key part of the solution, low level international assistance is part of the problem of keeping girls out of school.

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