Government officials and economists at an international education seminar say increasing the enrollment of girls in schools and improving women's education are key to economic development in sub-Saharan Africa.
Kenya's education minister George Saitoti told the seminar 60 percent of the 42 million African children who do not attend school are girls. He says a number of factors account for the gloomy figures, including cultural prejudices and poverty.
"These [factors] include negative cultural attitudes that place no value on the girls' education," said Mr. Saitoti. "These accounts for the large number of illiterate women in the continent today. The numbers are likely to increase if the girls [who] are out of school remain at the level I have just mentioned."
Mr. Saitoti said people in rural Africa are particularly slow to change their attitudes towards educating girls. He said girls are pulled out of schools to marry at a very young age, take care of sick family members or go to work.
But even girls who go to school, he said, often lack their own washrooms and other facilities and are vulnerable to sexual exploitation by male teachers or bullying by their fellow boy students. Many get pregnant and drop out of school.
Other speakers at the seminar included educators and representatives from international financial institutions and non-government organizations.
The head of the U.N. children's agency's education section, Cream Wright, says the benefits of educating girls are incalculable.
"Because of girls' education, many villages in rural Africa now have water and sanitation and hygienic practices because we found out this was critical for girls staying on in school," he said. "Because of girls' education, there's been a huge growth in community-based early childhood care centers."
He said to get more girls into the classroom, non-government groups, governments, and donors must work together.
The senior education adviser at the World Bank, Birger Fredriksen, says educating girls and women is not only morally right, but economically necessary.
"Both of these things, girls in schools and literacy programs for women, these are not luxuries," he said. "These are moral imperatives and these are development necessities. If we are not going to be able to do that, we are not going to be able to reach our development goals."
He said Kenya's introduction of free primary education last year, which boosted school enrollment by 20 percent, was a good example of Africa's progress, but added more needs to be done to make education accessible to all children, regardless of gender.