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Education of Girls Key to Development in Poor Countries, says UNICEF - 2003-12-10

The United Nations Children's Fund says poor countries could improve their development efforts by ensuring that girls get a basic education. UNICEF's just-released annual State of the World's Children report says getting more girls into school would help reduce poverty.

UNICEF says global goals to reduce poverty will not be met unless girls get greater access to education. The report says that societies everywhere would benefit from doing away with the barriers that keep girls out of school.

The United Nations development agenda known as the Millennium Development Goals aims to cut poverty by half by the year 2015. UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy says this entire program will be put in jeopardy if girls are not given a basic education.

"We actually know from empirical evidence that a girl who receives a basic education…is more likely to become a healthy adult," said Ms. Bellamy. "Her children are more likely to be healthy, reducing the number of children who die before the age of five. She is more likely to be able to make some choices about her life and therefore avoid some of the exploitation and violence, i.e., HIV and AIDS … and her family is more likely to be economically more secure."

The report says a modest investment in girls' education gives multiple returns.

UNICEF estimates more than 120 million children are left out of primary school every year, the majority of them girls. The report says the problem is greatest in sub-Saharan Africa. It says the number of girls left out of school each year has risen from 20 million in 1990 to 24 million in 2002.

Ms. Bellamy says the biggest obstacle to parents enrolling girls in schools are fees, not cultural prejudices.

"If you look at the experience of the last couple of years, whether it was Kenya, where they did away with the fees and one million and a half more children - boys and girls - came to school than they anticipated," she said.

The report recommends eliminating all school fees. It says other simple measures, which could persuade parents to send their girls to school include providing separate toilet facilities for boys and girls and building schools that are closer to home.