Goal: Achieve universal primary education

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Target by 2015:
Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling.

Educating girls advances development for all.

Meeting the Education Goal will speed progress toward every other Millennium Goal. Educating children helps reduce poverty and promote gender equality. It helps lower child mortality rates and promote concern for the environment. It is inextricably linked to Goal 3 – gender parity – as universal primary education by definition requires gender parity. Gender parity in primary education, meanwhile, is of limited worth if few children of either sex participate.

Further, education – specifically free primary school for all children – is a fundamental right to which governments committed themselves under the 1989 Convention of the Rights of the Child.

UNICEF advocates quality basic education for all, with an emphasis on gender equality and eliminating disparities of all kinds. In particular, getting girls into school and ensuring that they stay and learn has what UNICEF calls a “multiplier effect.” Educated girls are likely to marry later and have fewer children, who in turn will be more likely to survive and be better nourished and educated. Educated girls are more productive at home and better paid in the workplace, and more able to participate in social, economic and political decision-making.

School also offers children a safe environment, with support, supervision and socialization. Here they learn life skills that can help them prevent diseases, like how to avoid HIV/AIDS and malaria. They may receive life-saving vaccines, fresh water and nutrient supplementation at school. Educating a girl also dramatically reduces the chance her child will die before age five.

Conversely, denying children access to quality education increases their vulnerability to abuse, exploitation and disease. Girls, more than boys, are at greater risk of such abuse when they are not in school. For many villages, a school also provides a safe haven for children, a place where they can find companionship, adult supervision, latrines, clean water and possibly meals and health care.

Yet even these basics are beyond reach for hundreds of millions of children.  These children are deprived of their right to education because their families cannot afford school fees or other related costs, or because their communities are too poor or remote to have school facilities and supplies, or because they have to work to put food on the table. Children of indigenous populations or ethnic minorities often face discrimination and are excluded from education, as are children with disabilities.

In addition, HIV-AIDS has decimated schools, communities, and families around the world, creating orphans and other vulnerable children. Civil conflicts and humanitarian crises are also depriving children of the right to education. Girls often bear the brunt of these problems. They are the first to be withdrawn from school if money is short or if household work needs attention, if family members need to be cared for, if the school is too far away, or in situations of pervasive insecurity. The effect? The promise of a new generation is largely lost.

For the Education Goal to be met, actions need to address both human and material needs – buildings, books and teachers – and the organic requirements of getting all children into school and ensuring they complete a quality education. These include gender equality in society, good health and nutrition, and the strong backing of governments and communities.

UNICEF responds by:

Engaging in outreach and advocacy. UNICEF stages global information campaigns on the importance of getting children to school, especially girls. Such campaigns involve a wide range of partners – from children and teachers to religious leaders, and figures from popular sports such as soccer and cricket – to help get the word out. UNICEF also works directly with governments to highlight and address issues of gender discrimination or other roadblocks to education, such as school fees or forced child labour.

"Accompanying" countries in policymaking and implementation. For countries who seek such help, UNICEF provides sustained multi-sectoral support beyond funding. This includes being actively involved in day-to-day decision-making, without being obtrusive or trying to dictate terms, while respecting the vision that a country has set out for its own development and setting cooperation within wider development assistance frameworks.

More and more countries, for example, are adopting sector-wide approaches to education development, with UNICEF participating along with other key development partners in policy and planning processes.

UNICEF provides key support in collecting and sharing data on children’s educational status, helps establish stronger educational information and management systems, and shares good policy-making practices and innovations. UNICEF also advocates bold initiatives that can boost enrolments and participation, like abolishing school fees and reducing other costs, and devising an ‘essential learning package’ that can be used in emergency situations.

Promoting early child-care and development to ensure a ‘right start’ to education. Children’s learning capacities are severely restricted if they are hobbled by disease, malnutrition or developmental delays. UNICEF helps strengthen the capacity of communities and families to protect and care for disadvantaged groups, particularly children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

UNICEF also procures, raises awareness of and helps distribute vaccines for children in the developing world, and provides education and intervention to fight diseases like malaria, guinea worm and anaemia, all of which can keep children from attending school and learning. National campaigns and local outreach help educate in-home caregivers on best practices for good hygiene and nutrition, particularly breastfeeding.

Learning begins at birth and investing in quality early child care and development can substantially enhance children’s lifetime potential for educational achievement and learning. UNICEF supports such efforts as community-based early child care and development programmes; parent education; and linking health, hygiene promotion, nutrition and other early intervention initiatives.

Intensifying partnerships for girls’ education. UNICEF serves as the lead agency for the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), a group of partners dedicated to achieving gender parity and equality targets in education. Launched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000, UNGEI has set a platform for action and a partnership framework for the global girls’ education movement. UNICEF is also a key partner in the Education for All Fast-Track Initiative launched by the World Bank and supported by many bilateral donors, to help mobilize resources toward the Education Goal. The Initiative aims to help countries with policy, data, capacity-building and financial support, and to help them improve the efficiency of their resources.

UNICEF is a strong supporter, as well, of the Girls Education Movement (GEM), a grassroots initiative active in countries throughout Africa and officially launched in Uganda in 2001. GEM clubs work to empower girls through education and sensitize communities on the importance of sending every child to school.

Helping schools provide supplies, safe water and sanitation. Water, sanitation and hygiene are crucial to getting and keeping girls in school, as they bear the brunt of unhygienic or non-existent latrines. The lack of clean and separate sanitation facilities in schools discourages many girls from attending school full time and forces some of them to drop out altogether, particularly as they approach adolescence and the onset of menstruation. Lack of water in the household also keeps girls away, as they are usually the ones designated to walk long distances to fetch the household’s water supplies. And children of both sexes are sapped of nutrients, energy and the ability to learn if they are infected with water-borne parasites.

UNICEF has a strong presence in school-based water, sanitation and hygiene projects, supporting initiatives in scores of countries, such as supplying hand pumps to primary schools and training teachers in hygiene education. UNICEF also helps procure supplies like School-in-a-Box, a pre-packaged kit of materials like exercise books, pencils, erasers and scissors, enough for a teacher and up to 80 students.

Safeguarding the right to education in emergencies. At any given time, between a quarter and a third of the countries that UNICEF is working in are affected by emergencies arising from conflict, economic crises, natural disasters or a combination of these.

To help provide a sense of normalcy, as well as safety and security from the heightened risk of violence and exploitation that children – particularly girls – experience in times like these, UNICEF helps provide tents, supplies and human resources as part of its Back to School programmes. UNICEF, working with partners, also helps organize mass back-to-school campaigns, and offers longer term assistance to governments to support resuming quality education activities, rehabilitating schools and infrastructure, and developing accelerated and adapted learning strategies for children who have missed schooling.


Enrolment in primary education has continued to rise in the developing world. But the pace of progress is insufficient to ensure that, by 2015, all girls and boys complete a full course of primary schooling. Despite these challenges, a good deal has been accomplished in many regions. Though enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa remains the lowest of all regions, it still has increased dramatically. Progress has also been made in South Asia and Northern Africa. Major advances have been made even in some of the poorest countries, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

Read Thematic Paper on MDG 2: Achieve universal primary education [PDF]