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Girls Face Great Educational Obstacles in Horn of Africa - 2003-12-05

Officials with the U.N. children's agency say girls wanting to go to primary school in Sudan, Somalia and northern Kenya face huge obstacles.

UNICEF officials say access to primary education - especially for girls - must be made a priority if Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa are to progress.

UNICEF's regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Per Engebak, explains why girls in particular need to go to school. "Educating girls is the single most effective tool for raising economic productivity," said Per Engebak. "It lowers much faster the infant and maternal mortality rates. It improves nutrition and health, and it reduce[s] poverty."

Mr. Engebak says girls' education is also crucial in fighting the HIV-AIDS epidemic. He says educated girls are more likely to protect themselves from becoming infected, and are more likely to be able to deal with sexual issues.

Yet, in Mr. Engebak's words, girls end up at a disadvantage when it comes to education. He and other officials say girls in the region are kept out of school primarily because they are traditionally required to marry early, and expected to stay at home and contribute to the family's income and upkeep. He says they are the ones who care for parents sick with HIV-AIDS, or siblings orphaned by the disease.

In war-torn areas, girls face additional obstacles. UNICEF's representative for Southern Sudan, Bernt Aasen, says many girls in southern Sudan have to walk long distances to school, which can be very unsafe.

He says it is almost impossible for girls to attend primary school.

"Only one of 100 girls will be able to finish primary school successfully," he said. "I wish I could have brought with me 100 girls from south Sudan and have them here. Then we could take one and say, this is the one of these 100 that will be able to finish primary school."

Girls in Somalia find themselves in a similar situation. UNICEF's senior program officer for Somalia, Leila Pakkala, says only one third of Somalia's lower primary students are girls, and the school system itself needs a complete overhaul.

"There's a lot of focus on establishing an environment that is conducive for girls, having separate sanitation facilities, having the access to clean water, increasingly training teachers who are women and who understand the special protection needs of girls," said Leila Pakkala.

Ms. Pakkala says Somalia now has about 1,200 primary schools and around 7,000 teachers.

Unlike Sudan and Somalia, Kenya is not emerging from a long-running civil war. Yet, says UNICEF's senior program officer for Kenya, Roger Pearson, only five girls out of 100 who enter primary school actually graduate.

Mr. Pearson says the availability and quality of primary education in the north is severely limited for both girls and boys, despite the government's financial and moral commitment to education.

"If you look at the figures for boys and girls combined, the northern half of Kenya is doing worse than Ethiopia," he said. "It's doing worse than Chad. It's doing worse than Niger."

Mr. Pearson attributes the north's poor education situation to what he calls long-running, previous neglect and regional disparity of past governments.

UNICEF spoke to reporters a week before the organization is due to release its annual State of the World's Children report. The focus of this year's report is on education for girls.

Mr. Engebak says 20 million girls in Sub-Saharan Africa dropped out of primary school last year.