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The State of the World's Children 2004

To jump-start development

© UNICEF/UN/2003/Debebe

In the Millennium Declaration of September 2000, Member States of the United Nations made a commitment to address the crippling poverty that grips so many areas across the globe.

Governments set 2015 by which to meet the Millennium Development Goals (external link): eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development.

Two goals are considered central to them all: universal education, and gender equality and empowering women.

Universal education, seemingly straightforward, has been difficult to achieve. After decades of commitments, some 121 million children are still denied this right. Gender parity in education continues to be elusive – 65 million of those children are girls.

As a result, millions of girls, denied of an education, are at risk of disease, violence and abuse, exploitation of all kinds. And the millions of children born to illiterate women continue to die. Those who do survive continue to suffer needlessly. And poverty tightens its grip.

Investing in girls’ education will ultimately protect the rights of these girls and of all children and will jump-start all other development goals.

The most urgent goal of all

The Millennium Development Goal of gender parity in primary and secondary education is set for 2005, a full 10 years before the others. All goals are in jeopardy if gender parity in education is not met, making it the most urgent one of all.

Education for all children

The 2005 date for gender parity was set long before the Millennium Development Goals. First proposed at the World Conference on Education For All in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, it was reaffirmed at the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal.

For more than a decade, the Education For All campaign, led by UNESCO, has assessed countries’ yearly progress towards meeting this goal. EFA’s 2002 assessment noted that 86 countries have achieved gender parity in primary enrolment, another 36 appear close to achieving it and 31 countries – the majority located in sub-Saharan Africa – are at high risk for not achieving the goal by 2015.

After Dakar, UNICEF, as lead agency, joined 12 other UN agencies to form the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative. The Initiative works on country and global levels to improve the quality and availability of girls’ education.

Universal education and gender parity in primary and secondary schools were again endorsed by the world community when it recommitted itself to these goals at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children in May 2002.  It pledged to make education an essential part of building ‘A World Fit for Children’.

The impact of failure

The price of failure to educate all children will be an immeasurable loss of potential. The cost of failing to educate girls is particularly dear. The negative effects of not attending school are greater for girls than boys, and its consequences are transferred to the next generation.
Reasons for exclusion

Girls are systematically left out of school for various reasons; all of which are interrelated. 

Failure of accountability. Too often education is seen as a ‘good thing’ rather than the right of every child. Governments are not held accountable when they fail to meet this obligation.

Failure of understanding. The ultimate objective of development – human well-being – has been lost. Women, girls and the poor are hurt the most.

Failure of theory. Predominant views of development – economic growth and structural adjustment – have underestimated the value of social development, education in general and girls’ education in particular. Issues affecting women and girls are nearly invisible in the theories, policies and practices of development.

Failure of strategy. Even among those committed to Education For All, there is a failure to recognize the necessity of a multisectoral approach. Too often the education sector is solely identified to address problems and formulate solutions. Additionally, traditional perspectives are gender blind when they should be gender sensitive.

Challenging the status quo

To remove the barriers that prevent girls from enrolling and completing primary school, societies must deal with factors fundamental to the quality of life of the whole community. Girls’ education is inextricably linked to other facets of human development: the health and status of women, early childhood, nutrition, water and sanitation, and community empowerment. Girls’ education will help reduce child labour and other forms of exploitation.

UNICEF calls on all those concerned with human rights and the Millennium Development Goals to:

1. Accelerate actions in countries that display specific and flagrant gender discrimination against girls and boys, especially in those where either group is significantly at risk for being left out of school.

2. Embrace a human rights-based, multisectoral approach to development in order to redress the multiple discriminatory situations that deny girls their right to quality primary education.

Download chapter 1 PDF file (537KB)



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