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Despite gains in girls' education worldwide, far too many still missing out

Without "Quantum Leap" World Will Miss Goal of Universal Primary Education by 2015

GENEVA/NEW YORK, 18 April 2005 – More children than ever are going to school, in part because more girls are going to school: That’s the good news from UNICEF’s latest Progress for Children report, focusing on gender parity in primary school attendance.

However millions of girls are still denied a basic education. While the gender gap in primary school attendance is shrinking globally, in many parts of the world it still yawns wide. The barriers keeping girls out of school in the developing world not only rob them of future opportunity, but impact their very health and survival.

“Education is about more than just learning. In many countries it’s a life-saver, especially where girls are concerned,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, at the launch of the report. “A girl out of school is more likely to fall prey to HIV/AIDS and less able to raise a healthy family.”

The world has made impressive gains towards getting equal numbers of girls into primary schools as boys. Some 125 out of 180 countries for which data were available are on course to reach gender parity by 2005- a target set by the UN as part of the Millennium Development Goals.

Yet the global average masks huge pockets of inequity. Three regions -- Middle East/North Africa, South Asia and West/Central Africa -- will not meet the gender parity goal.

Gender parity is a prerequisite if the world is to achieve universal primary education by 2015, the target date set by the UN for a key Millennium Development Goal. The shrinking gender gap has helped reduce the total number of children denied a primary education. According to projections, fewer than 100 million children may be out of primary school by 2005, down from an estimated 115 million in 2001. Whatever the exact figure, it is clear that far too many are still shut out of the classroom, and at the present rate of increased school attendance, the goal of universal primary education by 2015 won’t be met.

“This report proves that our strategic focus on getting more girls into school is working to increase attendance rates for boys and girls in primary school,” added Bellamy.  “But it also makes clear that a quantum leap is needed both to break down the barriers keeping girls out of school and to make school available to all children.”

Gender disparity actually favours girls in two regions, Latin America/Caribbean and East Asia/Pacific. While addressing the gender gap is key to the goal of universal primary education, other barriers to children’s school participation need to be addressed as well. 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 an education.

The report gives a country-by-country snapshot of progress toward both goals of gender parity and universal primary education. It details wide differences between regions and between and within countries.

At the current rate of progress most countries in the Middle East/ North Africa, East Asia/Pacific and Latin America/Caribbean regions are on track to achieving universal primary education by 2015. At the other extreme most countries in sub- Saharan Africa and many in South Asia won’t come close unless they greatly accelerate their rates of progress.

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 average three times less likely to go to primary school than those from the wealthiest 20 per cent. This average ratio masks huge disparities between regions and between countries. In the CEE/CIS 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. Some 75 per cent of children out of primary school in developing countries have mothers who did not go to school. That proportion varies dramatically from region to region; 28 per cent in East Asia/Pacific as opposed to 80 per cent in West/Central Africa, South Asia and Middle East/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.

Making universal primary education and gender parity in schools a reality will require some radical shifts in thinking and policies.  All countries must begin to view education as a fundamental human right, not as an optional add-on where budgets allow. Kenya’s decision to abolish school fees for primary schools, following in the footsteps of Tanzania and Uganda, is just such a dramatic shift in thinking.

To be sure, opening the school gate to all who wish to enter has put a massive strain on already over-burdened resources. That’s why international aid for education must be drastically increased. The UN estimates that an extra USD 5.6 billion per year will be required to achieve universal primary education -- no small sum. Some richer nations have already recognised the importance of this challenge. The UK government has pledged $2.68 billion over the next three years to help get more girls in school. Norway contributed $51 million to UNICEF supported education initiatives in 2003- 2004.

“The goal of universal primary education with equal opportunity for girls and boys is realistic,” added Bellamy. “It is affordable, it is achievable and what’s more, it’s our children’s birthright.”

UNICEF, as one of the lead agencies in the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), is committed to narrowing the gender gap in primary and secondary education by 2005 and to ensuring that by 2015, all children complete primary schooling. UNGEI is a partnership that embraces the UN system, governments, donor countries, non-governmental organizations, civil society, the private sector, and communities and families.

Attention Broadcasters:  B-roll of the event and the stories above will be fed on Monday, 18 April via UNIFEED through APTN.  Visit:  www.un.org/unifeed.

For further information contact:

Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF Media, Geneva, wbelmonte@unicef.org
(41-22) 909 5712

Oliver Phillips, UNICEF Media, NY, ophillips@unicef.org
(1) 212 326 7583

Kate Donovan, UNICEF Media, New York, kdonovan@unicef.org 
(1) 212 326 7452




Related links

Report: Progress for Children [pdf]

Speech: Bellamy remarks at PFC launch

Top Ten/Bottom Ten in Gender Parity [pdf]

UNICEF's work in girls' education

United Nations Girls' Education Initiative

Voices of Youth

UNICEF’s Progress for Children report looks at gender parity in primary school attendance.

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