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UNICEF: Children in Former Soviet Countries Missing Out on Education

A new report finds millions of children in Central and Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union are missing out on education. The U.N. Children's Fund warns a large uneducated labor force will hamper economic growth and make these countries less competitive in the global marketplace. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva where the report was launched.

The report cites the educational system as one of the big casualties of the transition from communism to capitalism in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It says these countries enjoyed universal education under communism, but that now has changed.

UNICEF reports more than 14 million children across the region are not in school. This includes 2.5 million children who have dropped out of primary school. It says attendance rates in Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan are so low these countries are unlikely to meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2014.

Coordinator of the study, Philippe Testor, says children of wealthier, more educated families benefit from the public education system. But, he says the poorer children do not, even though schools in most of these countries are officially free.

"But, a number of educational services that in the past were provided free to the families-school meals, school health, transportation-all these services have been cut down since the transition. And, they actually form a basket of hidden costs," he said.

Testor says poor families cannot afford these hidden costs. He also notes most schools are built in urban areas where richer people are likely to live and not in the poor rural communities.

UNICEF Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe Maria Calivis says every year more than 14 million children enter the workforce without any formal education. She says this region is second only to the Middle East in terms of youth unemployment.

"The young population is definitely an asset to promote the economy," she said. "It is an engine behind also promoting an economy that is trying to compete globally. Rather than on cheap labor, more and more governments are giving priority to have their economies compete on a labor force that is skilled and that has the required competencies."

UNICEF says ethnic minorities, especially Roma children, suffer discrimination in education, as do disabled children. In the lower grades, it says fewer girls than boys go to school. But, throughout the region, it says girls outnumber boys in higher education.

The report urges governments to substantially increase the amount of money they spend on education from the current low of three percent of GDP to at least six percent.