Over the last two weeks schools around the world have opened their doors for the start of the new school year, but UNICEF said today that recent household surveys show that some 123 million children are currently being left out – perhaps never to see the inside of a classroom.
“This month millions of families will not share in the pride of sending their children off to school,” said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. “This is a disheartening reality in a world where education is the right of every child. And it is a major impediment to any effort to reduce poverty. The more children we leave out of school today, the more adults we leave behind a few years down the road. We need some new math.”
UNICEF said that in sub-Saharan Africa, 46 million school-aged children have never stepped foot in a school, a figure that has risen steadily every year since 1990. Another 46 million South Asian youngsters are not in school. These two regions together account for three-quarters of the world’s entire population of children who are not in school. UNICEF also noted that 2 percent of the global out-of-school population (about 2.5 million children) live in industrialized countries.
Globally, girls make up the majority of children who are not in school globally, comprising up to 56 per cent according to recent surveys.
Higher Barriers for Girls
Two years shy of the 2005 Millennium Development Goal to ensure that girls and boys have equal access to school, girls continue to be at a distinct disadvantage. While the gender gap in enrolment has narrowed over the last decade, girls are still the ones most often denied their right to go to school, and those who do attend drop out earlier. Globally, some 66 million girls of school age are not in school.
Meeting the 2005 goal of gender parity will require a major effort in most countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, half of all countries are well short of the goal, and a quarter are in fact moving in the wrong direction.
UNICEF has spearheaded a strategic effort to get girls into school by focusing on the specific barriers that prevent girls from accessing and completing an education. Studies show that strategies that get more girls into school make schools more welcoming for boys, as well.
“Ignoring the children who are not in school translates into huge losses in this generation and the next,” Bellamy said. “Far beyond the child losing the direct benefits of an education, absence from school puts children closer to the threat of disease, abuse and sexual exploitation. This is especially so for girls.
“On the other hand, when girls are encouraged to attend school, when the school welcomes them and they are able to complete a quality basic education, the benefits are enormous. These girls grow up to take better care of both themselves and their families. Girls who get an education are much more likely to have healthy children, and their children are more likely to go to school themselves. This is the key to breaking cycles of poverty.”
Yet there are success stories that point the way for other countries. In the post-Taliban era, Afghanistan has recognized the value of educating girls for long-term development. Last year, UNICEF’s largest-ever back to school campaign saw the return to school of more than 1.5 million girls and boys. This year, there are 4.2 million children in 7,000 schools and there has been a 37% increase in the number of girls in school since last year.
In poor families that cannot afford the costs of schooling, girls tend to be the most disadvantaged. In Kenya, the demand for schooling has surged since the government abolished school fees in January 2003. Primary school enrolment has increased by 1.3 million children, upping the national primary school enrolment from 5.9 million to 7.2 million students. Classroom sizes have mushroomed dramatically to accommodate the influx of new students. UNICEF is working with the Kenyan government to help the school system adjust to the challenges, and to ensure that girls and boys alike are given the quality education they are due.
Fuel for Development
UNICEF believes that bringing down the barriers that keep girls out of school is an essential strategy for improving the quality of schools and making them a more convincing option for poor parents. Making schools more attractive to all children will help fuel and sustain real human development. UNICEF will detail these arguments in its annual flagship report, The State of the World’s Children, to be published in December.
“The education of girls simply cannot be a low priority on the development agenda any longer,” said Bellamy. UNICEF will continue to rally the political and financial support to turn possibility into actuality where all out-of-school children are concerned, and to make sure that girls are not forgotten or left behind.”