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Arab girls outperforming boys in school but access and gender discrimination remain critical

AMMAN, April 18, 2005 – A region still dominated by the world’s greatest gender imbalances, the Middle East and North Africa have nonetheless seen sustained progress in the past two decades towards achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education,  says the UNICEF’s Progress For Children Report launched globally in Geneva today.

UNICEF’s Report Card gives special focus to gender equality in education and takes as its point of reference the 2000 Dakar Conference and the Millennium Declaration goal aimed at "eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and achieving gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls' full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality."

Regional data for the Arab world shows that in the past decade girls outperformed boys in almost every academic area and net primary school enrolments for boys and girls compare favourably with world averages. Once Arab girls are enrolled in primary school, they usually do as well or better than boys.  In the vast majority of Arab countries, girls have a lower repetition rate than boys. Approximately two-thirds of all girls in the appropriate age group in the region are in primary school and over 90 per cent of boys and girls in the Middle East and North Africa reach grade 5 of primary school.

Also, the Progress for Children Report does a comparative analysis by region and highlights the fact that the greatest achievements in the Average Annual Rate of Increase in school participation –AARI- in the past twenty years are in the Middle East and North Africa, with an increase of 1,4 for boys and 1,2 for girls.

However, Arab girls still face serious problems in terms of completing their schooling.  Many are withdrawn from school near or after puberty, and many drop out due to early marriage.  Girls of all ages often carry a heavy load of domestic duties, hampering their studies and leading many to leave school.

Relative progress but gender discrimination persists

All the world’s regions have strived to enrol more girls in school and in the decade of the 90s, the number of girls in primary school increased faster than that of boys. Yet, 8% -out of the world’s total- children out of school in 2001 are in the Arab world and 57% of the estimated 115-million primary-age children out of school worldwide are girls, which points at gender discrimination remaining a pressing, unsolved problem globally.  Amongst the poorest performers in terms of girls' access to primary school in the Arab world are Yemen (184/100); Iraq (176/100) and Egypt 131/100).

"We still need to see improved access to primary and secondary schooling for both boys and girls," said today Thomas McDermott, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. "Countries face a particular challenge in making schools function well in rural areas, where teachers, particularly young women, find it hard to stay.  Access to education requires more than children starting schooling.  It means also that schools actually function every school day; that teachers remain in place; that schools are regularly repaired and maintained.  Access also means that when children finish primary schooling, there are practical possibilities to continue at intermediate and secondary levels”, he added.

Children out of School: tradition and poverty exacerbate girls’ exclusion

Although many Arab states have acknowledged the human rights aspect of free and compulsory education, the reality is that school fees continue to deter parents from sending children, and particularly their daughters, to school. Desertion of girls from schools in the Arab world is also explained by different roles imposed upon girls and boys by the community and family.

Also, countries that have experienced decades of internal conflict and displacement need to recreate strategies for school reintegration with focus on areas where resettling occurs. The cases of Sudan and Iraq particularly exacerbate the regional average of gender disparity with causes for imbalance rooted in continued social, political and economic instability.

Lastly, the implications of surrendering the contribution of the child in housekeeping, child rearing and supplementary family income are still unaffordable for families below poverty line against the provision of incentives such as mid-day meal, books, uniforms etc. Parents face a variety of poverty related problems and they equate education to improved employability and raising income level. In the region, child marriage and child labour are subsequent causes of non-enrolment and drop-out.

Urban vs. rural child: access as a crucial challenge

There continue to be significant disparities in availability of and access to primary education between rural and urban communities and household wealth related variables remain persistently evident of this situation. According to the report, children of primary school age belonging to the poorest 20% of the households in the Middle East and North Africa are 4,5 times more likely to be denied primary school opportunities than those belonging to the richest 20%.

Sadly, in rural areas, access to education often means leaving one's family and community and going far away to a boarding school.  For most children, especially girls, the expense and the difficulty and dangers of living far away from their families for much of the year is simply too much.  Then too, children educated in cities far from their rural homes, often find it hard later to return to their communities to live and work.   We need to make rural education work, if we want rural life to succeed", McDermott concluded.

UNICEF works: Initiatives to ensure Arab girls’ schooling
The United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and its Education For All (EFA) programme have put education at the forefront of international development agenda. Advancing girls’ education in the region has been a permanent area of UNICEF’s focus and successful outcomes are tangible in several countries, as listed below:

  • Community Schools in Upper Egypt - The Egyptian government and UNICEF have helped create 200 community schools in villages throughout the Assiut region of Upper Egypt where 70 per cent of the pupils are female. UNICEF -- in partnership with the Ministry of Education -- set up the Community Schools initiative in 1992 in the governorates of Assiut, Sohag and Qena. What began as an experiment has flourished. It has been supported strongly by partners such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and replicated by others such as the US Agency for International Development and the Social Fund for Development.
  • Remedial Education in the occupied Palestinian territory -   Years of conflict , day-long curfews, closures and check points have dealt a harsh blow to education in Palestine, damaging schools and forcing school children to miss classes. UNICEF is working to ensure that as many children as possible have the opportunity to compensate for days schools are closed, by supporting alternative self-learning education projects such as remedial education, summer camps and the development worksheets for students in Grades 1-6.
  • Prioritising girls’ education in Syria - UNICEF advocacy has led to official recognition of the problem of girl drop-outs as a priority concern. Support to the Ministry of Education in improving the quality of basic education through the Global Education Initiative (GEI) prompted the adoption of this initiative for implementation in all of the country's 12,000 primary schools over the coming 10 years.
  • School reintegration in Darfur camps - UNICEF is committed to restoring and establishing education activities for 300,000 conflict-affected primary school children, and 50,000 host community children. As February 2005, approximately 165,000 children were enrolled in classes in Darfur, with UNICEF support. Today, 50% of children in Darfur IDP schools supported by UNICEF are girls.

Present at the regional launch of the Progress For Children in Cairo, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa, Mahmoud Kabil today lauded the effort of the BBC World Service Trust in the development of the “My Life” project, which involved the participation of young girls in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, encouraging them to voice their personal dreams for the future.

On the Progress For Children Report, Kabil noted that the Arab world has yet to deal with an estimated 7,5 million children out of school, half of which are girls. “Girls being denied their basic right to education today will turn into women deprived of equal opportunities for development in the very near future”, he concluded.

For further information please contact

M. Anis Salem, asalem@unicef.org, +962-79-557-9991

Wolfgang Friedl, wfriedl@unicef.org, Tel: 9626-5502-422, Mob: 00-96279-573-2745




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