The State of the World's Children 1999

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Educating girls: Changing lives for generations

Q: Why educate girls?

A: Because it's their human right. And because educated women are less likely to be oppressed or exploited and more likely to participate in political processes. In addition, they are likely to have smaller families, and healthier and better-educated children.

Girl's right to education in Egyptian community school.   Copyright © UNICEF/98-0402/GoodsmithIn many villages in Bihar (India), there are no women who can read and write. Here, as in six other states in the country, the Mahila Samakhya programme is mobilizing women into collectives, teaching them the skills needed to participate in the decision-making processes affecting the lives of their families. Five thousand villages have been reached since 1992. Inevitably, the women, empowered through this programme, demand an education for their children, especially for their daughters.

Similarly, traditions concerning girls and women have been shaken up in rural parts of Upper Egypt, where more than a half-million girls, 6-10 years old, were not in school at the beginning of this decade. With government support, local communities claimed responsibility for their schools. They trained young women from the area as teachers, recruited a student body that is 80 per cent girls and created a curriculum of relevance and flexibility that now serves as a model for formal schools.

In Burkina Faso, only 9 per cent of women over the age of 15 are literate and only 24 per cent of primary school age girls are enrolled in school. But the mothers in that African country are refusing to accept illiteracy as an inevitable fact of life for their daughters. They have formed 23 Pupils' Mothers' Associations in order to monitor girls' enrolment and, as result of their efforts since 1992, both the attendance and performance of young girls have improved.

Through initiatives such as these, supported by the global UNICEF Girls' Education Programme, the world is helping transform the worrisome state of girls' education. Fifty years after education was affirmed as a right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a decade after that right was reaffirmed, for all children without discrimination, in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and nearly 10 years after girls' education was identified as "the most urgent priority" at the World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien (Thailand), girls around the globe cannot exercise their right to education as readily as can boys. Of the more than 130 million 6- to 11-year-olds out of school in the developing world, nearly two thirds are girls.

Without literacy skills, individual girls and women face dark futures of dependency, and without literate women, countries face unnecessary hurdles in economic development. Numerous studies have demonstrated correlations between women's educational status and every social indicator.

During a speech in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then Vice-President and Chief Economist of the World Bank, argued that "investment in the education of girls may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world."

In this context, girls and women and the countries themselves in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa are particularly compromised. In each of these regions, less than 50 per cent of the female population is able to read and write.

UNICEF's strategy is to get more girls into school and to keep them there longer by incorporating a gender-sensitive approach in the classroom. With such an approach, the subject matter is relevant to the students' lives, the teacher-student interaction is mutually respectful, students are encouraged to participate rather than just listen passively, and their contributions are affirmed. Since this approach actually benefits all children, boys and girls alike, improving girls' education is both an end in itself and a means for ensuring that the goal set at Jomtien -- Education For All -- is met. With Canada and Norway as major donors, initiatives are under way in 52 countries including those in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa.

Approaches vary based on country need. In Asia, the UNICEF programme supports the Bihar Education project in India, with its strong emphasis on women's empowerment. In Africa,

UNICEF supports AGEI, the African Girls' Education Initiative, with its focus on assuring girls' access to primary schools. And in Egypt, one of the nine countries targeted by UNICEF and others for special focus in implementing Education For All, not only are girls going to the community schools, they are also encouraging their mothers to attend literacy classes.

The impact is profound. On learning to read and write, one young Egyptian mother told a visiting evaluation team that she "can no longer be compared to the water buffalo on the farm." For her, learning to read and write meant that she had gained her "full humanness."

  • Nearly a quarter of the world's adult population, two thirds of them women, cannot read and write.
  • Not only do fewer girls than boys ever enrol in school, more girls than boys drop out, repeat grades or do not finish.
  • Ninety-six per cent of the world's children live under governments that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child

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