Scholars, aid workers, and government officials from 22 countries are in Dakar this week for the U.N. Girls' Education Initiative's global conference aimed at finding new ways to get and keep girls in school.
The UN Children's Fund estimates that nearly 72 million children of primary school age were not enrolled in school in 2007. More than half of those not in school are girls, and more than two-thirds of them are in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia.
In the last decade, enrollment has increased and the gender gap in schools has closed in many regions, but UNICEF's Executive Director, Anthony Lake, says there is still much work to be done. "Unless we all work harder, there may still be 56 million children out of school in 2015. 56 million lives blighted. 56 million development opportunities wasted. All of our development work -- child survival, maternal and child health, child protection -- all of it in the most disadvantaged communities hinges on educating girls, as well as boys. It is the only way to make sustainable progress, sustainable economic development," he said.
Lake is one of 200 scholars, government officials, civil society workers and development partners in Dakar this week for a conference organized by the UN Girls' Education Initiative, an international partnership aimed at achieving gender equality and universal primary school education by 2015.
UNICEF's Lake said even in Senegal, where the number of public schools has doubled in the last decade, there is still work to be done to achieve gender equality in schools.
He said girls in one Dakar school explained to him some of the daily challenges they face, such as the lack of bathrooms in the school, bullying from boys, and a lack of textbooks.
At the week-long conference, participants are focusing on three primary roadblocks to getting and keeping girls in school: violence, poverty and the poor quality of education being offered.
Though school enrollment has increased in recent years, experts say improved access to education must go hand-in-hand with improved quality.
Ann-Therese Ndong-Jatta is director of UNESCO's Regional Bureau for Education in Africa. She said we need to modify outdated curriculum and improve instruction methods, such as teaching African children in their native languages, not simply in English or French.
"The donors are pumping in a lot of resources," Ndong-Jatta explained. "Civil society is working on access but the truth is 75 percent of the children fail. How do we ensure that what children learn benefits them and would guarantee jobs? What we have today is a situation where children themselves shy away from continuing to secondary school because there is no future."
To ensure that a child stays in school and succeeds in school, she said, education must be useful.
May Rihani, from the U.N. Girl's Education Initiative's Global Advisory Committee, gave an unlikely example from a "life skills" curriculum being used in Mali. "One of the lessons is about diarrhea. Diarrhea is about quality of education because it's relevant, because the child would learn in the school about diarrhea and will go tell the mother. The mother would recognize that this education is important to her and to her family and would want the child to continue to go to school," she stated.
UNICEF says girls who are educated can not only contribute to their families and their communities, but are also at lower risk of violence, abuse, exploitation and diseases, like HIV/AIDS.
The Education for All Global Monitoring Report says an additional $16 billion in annual funding would be needed to achieve universal primary school education by 2015.