Monday, June 27, 2005

Educating Girls

This story is about how it pays to educate girls. -Angela

June 25, 2005

Educating Girls / New York Times

The wish list of the world's poorest families is long. They need to grow more crops and start more businesses. They need to have smaller families, healthier and better educated children and safer pregnancies and births. They need to fight AIDS and protect women and children from domestic violence. There is one program that will help achieve these goals and more: educating girls. When officials of the richest countries meet next month at the Group of 8 summit, they should strongly consider a large investment in schooling for girls.

Worldwide, 58 million school-age girls are deprived of education. In rural Africa, about 70 percent of girls do not finish primary school. In some countries, a girl is 20 percent less likely to start school than her brother is.

Girls benefit tremendously from education, and so do the societies around them. But, especially in rural or traditional societies, parents need daughters to help in the house. They are often afraid to send girls on unsafe walks to faraway schools.

Perhaps most important, in many places girls become part of their husband's family when they marry, so parents of an educated girl do not reap the benefits of her higher income and skills. These cultures have a saying: educating your daughter is like watering your neighbor's garden. Since parents in many places must pay for school fees, books and uniforms, they often send only their boys.

But countries have begun to notice that educating women provides amazing social benefits, from better health to a better economy. They have begun programs to encourage girls to start and stay in school. The most direct way is to make education cheaper - nations that have eliminated school fees have had their schools flooded with girls. In Uganda, attendance soared from 2.5 million to 6.5 million children, most of them girls, after fees were abolished in 1997. Other nations give cash payments or bags of wheat to families for attending school. In other places, building schools in each community so students can travel less is the solution.

The Save the Children charity recently ranked Bolivia as the country that has made the most improvement in girls' education. In 1995, Bolivia instituted sweeping reforms, with special attention to rural girls. Families received cash incentives. Schools got more teachers who speak indigenous languages, and revamped schedules to provide vacations during harvests. Bolivia has since closed the gender gap and the number of students completing primary school rose to 78 percent from 10 percent.

Three years ago, rich countries and organizations promised countries with similarly thoughtful and transparent plans that money would be no obstacle. Nearly 40 countries have such plans, but sadly, the money hasn't materialized. Since attracting girls means hiring more teachers, poor governments are unwilling to get started until they know they can rely on the money to pay salaries.

Next month's meeting of the G-8 can fix this. Some $5 billion in new money a year is needed to help meet the goal of universal education. So far, the Bush administration has been resisting calls to commit more money to Africa. But Laura Bush is a passionate advocate of girls' education. She should convince her husband that there are few better bargains.

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