(March 2004) They call it an “awakening” center, where 9-to-15-year-old girls have a chance to catch up academically with male counterparts who, unlike them, have attended school for years. For four hours a day, six days a week, the girls focus on basic math, reading, health issues and — to promote a positive self-image — the intricate moves of karate.

This experiment in Bihar, a populous state in eastern India, has increased local literacy rates among females from 23 percent to 34 percent, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports. It also represents one of several new success stories as governments, health agencies, and others seek to reverse centuries-old trends of low female enrollment in primary and secondary education.

But daunting problems remain: About 65 million girls worldwide do not attend school, according to UN estimates. The problem is most acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where only 59 percent of children — mostly boys— attend school, and in West Asia, where only 85 girls attend school for every 100 boys, despite recent improvements.

In response, UN organizations, the World Bank, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are providing more outreach, arguing that higher enrollment rates can transform the economies of developing nations through increased productivity, reduced poverty, and greater knowledge of health issues to fight a variety of ills, including AIDS and infant mortality. But these efforts face major challenges — from historic discrimination against girls to lack of funds.

“Right now, we have to ask ourselves whether the world is walking away from girls, walking away from the goals it has set for itself,” said Carol Bellamy, UNICEF executive director. In its latest Education for All Global Monitoring Report, the UN found that girls continue to face “sharp discrimination” in schooling, largely because of traditional policies that discourage their education.

The issue is timely because of the UN’s goal to promote equal enrollment in education among boys and girls — gender parity — by 2005. About 70 countries — more than half of those for which reliable data are available — are at risk of failing to meet this objective. Only 53 countries are on course to reach the goal for both primary and secondary education by next year (see table).

Prospects of Achieving Gender Parity in Primary and Secondary Education, by Region


Parity by 2005

# of countries

Parity by 2015

# of countries

At Risk of No Parity by 2015

# of countries

Arab States




Central Asia



Central/E. Europe



E. Asia/Pacific








N. America/W. Europe




Sub-Saharan Africa




S./W. Asia







Source: UNESCO, Education for All Monitoring Report (2003).

Pockets of Success

Despite long-term disparities in boys’ and girls’ schooling, education experts are documenting successful strategies that improve girls’ enrollment. In some cases, these success stories have little to do with what takes place in the classroom.

“Not all education problems need education solutions,” said Ed Allan, senior education manager at World Learning for International Development in Washington, D.C., citing his organization’s work in Benin as an example. Working through NGOs between 2001 and 2003, the organization launched a ferry service that helped rural girls cross rivers and get to school. Before ferry service, many families had feared for girls’ safe travel, he said.

Giving women a say in their education is another successful strategy. Communities in Benin and Ethiopia have created Girls Advisory Committees, where female students, teachers, and mothers discuss pressing needs. “The idea is that schools belong to the community. They are not just something the government provides,” Allan said. Experts cite a number of other common challenges and ideas to combat them:

Sanitation. A small school may have just one bathroom, and a commitment to educational parity often begins with installation of separate facilities for girls. According to the UN, sanitation improvements are a major reason behind female school enrollment increases in Guinea, Nigeria, and other countries.

Fees. Many experts acknowledge that when schools charge fees for school, poor parents may choose to send only the boys or to opt out entirely. Yet efforts to abolish fees have paid off. In Kenya, enrollment of boys and girls increased by 1.3 million after the abolition of fees in 2003. In Uganda, enrollment soared from 2.5 million in 1997 to 6.5 million in 2000 after fee rollbacks.

Direct aid. Bangladesh’s female secondary-school stipend promotes school over early marriage. Families earn stipends if girls have a 75 percent or better attendance rate, post high exam scores, and stay unmarried. After starting as a pilot program, the effort moved nationwide in 1994 with outside support. Case studies of girls from the poorest rural areas show that most have delayed marriage and gained jobs in business after leaving school.

Early childhood services. Sending a young girl to preschool may cultivate a new tradition of education within families. In Nepal, all girls in an informal preschool program later enrolled in elementary school. Researchers there cited increased self-esteem among children, higher family expectations, and an environment that established “the rhythm of schooling.” Some early childhood programs also double as family centers with outreach to mothers. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, early childhood centers for refugees also teach parenting skills as well as the importance of reading to young children.

Flexible entry/exit. Botswana, Guinea, Kenya, and Malawi permit the re-entry of girls into formal education programs after pregnancy. The move follows the entry into force in 1999 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which recognizes the right of pregnant girls to an education.

All of these strategies hold promise, yet experts acknowledge the scope of the challenge still ahead. “Success,” notes the UN, “is taking examples like these and multiplying them a thousand-fold.”

Charles Dervarics is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in education, health, and employment issues.


United Nations Children’s Fund, The State of the World’s Children 2004 , accessed online at www.unicef.org/sowc04/index.html, on Dec. 12, 2003.

United Nations Children’s Fund, Girls’ Education: Making Investments Count , accessed online at www.unicef.org/publications/Investmentgirlsirlsed.pdf, on Nov. 6, 2003.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2003/4, Gender and Education for All, The Leap to Equality , accessed online at www.unescobkk.org/EFA/publications.htm, on Nov. 6, 2003.

For More Information

United Nations Children’s Fund, www.unicef.org

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, www.unesco.org.

World Bank, Education for All Fast-Track Initiative, http://www1.worldbank.org/education/pdf/fti_overview.pdf

World Learning for International Development, www.worldlearning.org/wlid/edtrain.html