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UNICEF Says 115 Million Children, Mostly Girls, Miss School

A new report by the U.N. children's fund says more children than ever are going to school. But UNICEF says about 115 million children, mostly girls, are still denied a basic education.

UNICEF says there has been significant progress in getting children in school and in narrowing the gender gap between boys and girls. But it says progress is still too slow. At the rate it is going, it says the target of universal primary education by 2015 set by the U.N. Millennium Development Goal will be missed.

The UNICEF report says most countries in sub-Saharan Africa and many in South Asia are furthest away from meeting this goal. It notes that 82 percent of all children who do not attend school live in rural areas. It says the biggest barriers to education are poverty, conflict and HIV-AIDS.

In another telling statistic, the report says about 75 percent of children who do not attend primary school in developing countries have mothers who did not go to school.

UNICEF's executive director, Carol Bellamy, says girls who go to school benefit in many ways from the experience. "They are more likely to grow up healthy. They are more likely to have stable household incomes. Their own children are more likely to survive and stay healthy and their children are more likely to go to school. The evidence is overwhelming that the exclusion of women and girls, that discrimination against women and girls in all its forms, is the biggest anchor holding back national development around the world," he said.

The report gives a country-by-country snapshot of progress toward gender parity in schooling and universal primary education. It finds Peru, Sao Tome, Vietnam and Ghana are closest to reaching gender parity by 2015. The countries furthest away from reaching this goal are Yemen, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali.

Ms. Bellamy says there are several concrete steps communities can take to get more girls to attend school. "It can range from how close the school is to where the village is because parents are worried about girls walking [a] long distance, to having separate sanitary facilities in schools, separate latrines in schools for both boys and girls. Quite a simple thing. Not a hugely expensive matter, but it makes a difference to [getting] girls in school. Having access to clean water in school because girls are usually the ones that have to fetch the water, to the issue of school fees. School fees [are] the single largest stumbling block to children generally going to school, but particularly girls going to school," he said.

UNICEF says it will take a radical shift in thinking and policies to make universal primary education and gender parity in schools a reality. The report says one example of this kind of thinking is Kenya's decision to abolish school fees for primary schools, as Tanzania and Uganda have also done.