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65 million girl-children worldwide are out of school: Unicef report

Investing in girls' education will help ensure the right of all children to a quality education, and the attainment of development goals. 'The State of the World's Children 2004: Girls, Education and Development' commends India for its Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education For All) campaign

Education was a distant dream for Lalita Kumari (18), a tribal girl from Bihar's Sitamarhi district, whose beaming photograph is featured in the cover of Unicef's 'The State of the World's Children 2004: Girls, Education and Development' report. In Lalita's community, girl-children were simply not educated. So, when she showed an interest in studying, she had to put up with intimidation, even physical abuse, from her father, mother and brothers. A determined Lalita persisted and, today, armed with a basic education she teaches karate to girl-children in Bihar and Jharkhand. "Access to basic education has given me both a sense of empowerment as well as a livelihood resource," she says.

According to 'The State of the World's Children 2004: Girls, Education and Development', 121 million children around the world, among them 65 million girls, are not as fortunate as Lalita.

Outlining the present status of education, and the condition of children worldwide, the report presents the findings of several studies on the costs and consequences of depriving girls of education. These indicate that girls are particularly vulnerable to poverty and hunger. And, are at greater risk than boys from HIV/AIDS, sexual exploitation and child trafficking.

The report reiterates that education leads to more equitable development, stronger families, better services and better child health. Women who have been to school are less likely to die during childbirth, it claims. "The effect of schooling on reducing the number of births means that for every 1,000 women, every additional year of education will prevent two maternal deaths," the report says.

Referring to a recent Unicef analysis of household data from 55 countries and two Indian states (multiple indicator cluster surveys and demographic and health surveys, from 1999 to 2001), the report explains that children of educated women are much more likely to go to school; the more schooling the women receive, the more probable it is that their children will also benefit from education. This recent study backs up the research by stating that the skills girls acquired at school not only resulted in improved health outcomes for themselves and their children but also, eventually, for their grandchildren.

'The State of the World's Children 2004: Girls, Education and Development' emphasises that without the foundation of gender parity in education, achievements towards other Millennium Development Goals could not be sustained. "In fact, gender parity in primary and secondary education is considered to be of such importance that its scheduled worldwide completion date is 2005, 10 years before that of all the other goals," the report says.

The 1990s saw the narrowing of the gender gap in primary school enrolment. The ratio of girls' gross enrolment rate to boys', in developing countries, increased from 0.86 to 0.92. Girls' enrolment in nearly two-thirds of developing countries increased over the decade, with the biggest improvement seen in Benin, Chad, the Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan and Sudan. In Morocco, the proportion of enrolment of girls in rural areas shot up from 44.6% in 1997-1998 to 82.2% in 2002-2003. Yet, the primary school completion rate for girls lags way behind that of boys, at 76 % compared with 85%.

Eighty-three per cent of all girls out of school in the world live in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia and the Pacific.

The report lays down three goals for girls' education: reducing the total number of girls out of school; improving the quality of education for girls and boys alike; and ensuring progress in learning achievement for all children. The report also suggests ways and means to ensure access to education, and improving and sustaining quality education. It points to a set of strategies, both within the classroom and outside it, to improve the education of girls.

'The State of the World's Children 2004' suggests that all school fees and charges for primary schooling be immediately abolished. "When parents have to pay for their children's schooling, Education For All becomes impossible and girls lose out even more than boys." Drawing instances from Malawi, the report says that, in Malawi, the initial result of abolishing school fees in 1994 was an almost 70% increase in enrolments, from 1.9 million in the 1993-1994 academic year, to 3.2 million in the 1994-1995 academic year. "Education must be embraced as the right of every child," the report adds.

The report stresses that national effort plays a big role in achieving girls' education. It commends India for its efforts on behalf of children's right to education through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education For All) campaign, launched in October 2001. The campaign stresses the importance of a child-centred curriculum, effective and innovative teaching aids and strategies and teachers' training to improve the quality of education. It seeks particularly to bridge social, regional and gender gaps by targeting children of socially vulnerable and economically marginal groups -- girls, children from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and children belonging to minority groups -- with the active participation of the community in panchayati raj institutions and school management.

"The strategies advocated and implemented by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan are embedded in community ownership of school-based interventions through the effective decentralisation and involvement of various institutions. It is seen as a partnership between the central, state and local governments while providing states with an opportunity to individually develop their own vision of elementary education," says the report.

Some key strategies recommended by the report are:
  • The need to launch a massive public education campaign to create awareness about the importance of girls' education. The campaign should enjoin every actor in society to make girls' education part of the national ethos. The report says that governments should be held accountable for the enrolment and retention of girls in schools.
  • The levying of a surcharge, if necessary, to generate resources for providing education to girl-children.
  • Launching special projects to bring all girl-children within the ambit of education. A mechanism should be developed to evaluate the effectiveness of such projects.
  • Citing the instance of the School-Based Healthy Living and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Programme in Myanmar, the report urges the promotion of health in schools. The impact of the programme in Myanmar was so great that a village in Tachileik township began using iodised salt as a result of pressure from children who learnt of its benefits in class. The School-Based Healthy Living and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Programme is included in the standard curriculum of children from Grades 2 to 9. It focuses on a range of health and social issues -- from HIV/AIDS to personal hygiene, from nutrition to drugs -- and explores them through activities designed to develop life skills such as communication, cooperation and problem solving. Introduced in 1998, the programme now covers 1.3 million students in nearly 9,000 schools and is being adopted by the government as the standard for teaching life skills throughout Myanmar.
  • Less-formal learning spaces should become more than places for lessons and skill building; they should become centres for community participation and development.

While emphasising the importance of informal schools, the report refers to Mahila Samakhya, a successful initiative in Bihar, India. Mahila Samakhya, through its informal education centre Mahila Sikshan Kendra, offers lessons in basic literacy and numeracy, six days a week, four hours a day. The learning material is gender-sensitive and specially geared to local conditions. Mahila Samakhya's success lies in its ability to instil a sense of empowerment among young women.

In Bhutan, some 261 community schools have been established in huts, temples and farmhouses rather than in specialised school buildings, with management and supervisory powers vested with parents and the local community. The department of education has successfully narrowed the difference in the proportion of primary school enrolment between boys and girls from 24% in 1990 to 6% in 2000. The dropout rate for both boys and girls has also decreased significantly, from 8% in 1995 to 4% in 1999.

The report mentions a similar programme in Bangladesh initiated by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). BRAC schools, which run for two hours a day, six days a week, as per the convenient timings of the community, have been so successful that the scheme expanded quickly and total enrolment now stands at about 1.2 million.

  • Industrialised countries should direct 10% of official aid to basic education, with programmes that benefit girls as their priority. The report refers to a commitment made at the International Conference on Financing for Development, in Monterrey, Mexico, to move swiftly towards giving at least 0.7% of a country's gross national product in aid, and at least 0.15% to the least developed countries.
  • Extending the Fast-Track Initiative, a pact between donors who provide additional policy, data, capacity-building and financial support, and countries that implement sound policies and accept clear accountability for results. The initiative should be expanded to include all governments that demonstrate a serious commitment to the goal of universal primary education.

(InfoChange News & Features, December 2003)