A study by a children's charity group has found that a disturbing number of young girls in Liberia's capital are selling sex to pay school fees.   Rampant unemployment and costly school tuition make it difficult for the young to go back to school after years of civil war.

In a dimly lit hotel bar in the center of war battered Monrovia, a group of girls wanders in from the streets.  One of them sits down and orders a soft drink.

She says she comes here on weekends to meet men and to make money as a prostitute to pay her high school fees.

With her father dead, a young sister to take care of, and unemployment topping 80 percent, she says prostitution is her only option.

"My father is not alive," she said.  "And my mother, she is very old. I pay for my own school, sometimes I pay for my little sister. [There are] too [many] problems in Monrovia.  There are no jobs. You look for a job, you can't get it. They say you must finish high school first."

The girl, who says she is 20, grew up in Monrovia during nearly a decade and a half of civil war. Like many of her generation, who missed out on an education when schools were destroyed or closed, she has gone back. But for thousands of girls and young women, doing so means selling sex to pay for it.

Children's charity Save the Children UK this week released a report saying between 60 and 80 percent of Monrovia's schoolgirls sell sex to pay school fees.   In a telephone interview with VOA, the organization's education coordinator in Liberia, Felix Edwards, explains.

"There's a huge population of exceptionally poor people, but who recognize that they need education, as is their right, in order to further themselves. And, therefore, are willing to go to these sorts of lengths to access it," he noted.

The risks are high for these young women, says Mr. Edwards. They are exposed to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. They are often targets of violence.  And teen pregnancy can lead them to abandon their studies permanently.

But many of those unwilling to sell sex find themselves excluded from an education, as many families choose to use their limited resources to send male children to school.  In Liberia, sending just one child to school costs the equivalent of about half the average annual income.

Mr. Edwards says this must change if, in the long-term, Liberia is to overcome its current economic problems.

"Girls' education is the best investment a country can make to develop. And with the cost of education here so high, few girls are accessing an education. This is going to have a seriously negative effect on Liberia's development," he explained.

Next month, Liberia is due to hold its first general elections since the end of the civil war.  Helping kids get back into classrooms has been a key issue for the more than 20 candidates vying for the presidency.