Global effort educating more girls worldwide

WASHINGTON (AP) — The world has made striking gains in increasing school enrollment of girls during the past 10 years, with the most progress in some unexpected places such as the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
A new report says girls now actually outnumber boys in secondary schools in 18 countries, mostly in Latin America. But 51 countries still have serious gender gaps, with 75 million fewer girls than boys in their schools, according to a report released Sunday by Population Action International.
Researchers and government officials credit the decade’s gains to factors that include a spreading awareness of the importance of women, as well as general economic growth. The United Nations, World Bank and nongovernment groups have been pushing education programs for girls in a global effort to clear the gender gap by 2005 and achieve universal primary education by 2015.
In Malawi, where the gap has been sharply reduced, pregnant girls are no longer automatically expelled from school. In Egypt, an aggressive school-building program in rural areas increased enrollment of girls by 60 percent in rural primary schools.
A project involving training of female teachers and other initiatives in Pakistan increased girls’ enrollment in villages of the province with the largest gender gap, Baluchistan, by 87 percent, the report said.
But in Pakistan and many other countries the gap remains wide and obstacles for girls still are great.
“Educating a girl is like watering your neighbor’s garden,” said Shanti Conly, co-author of the study, in describing a prevalent attitude in India. In that country, girls often are valued most for the help they do at home.
In Africa and Latin America, increasing numbers of unmarried teenage girls are dropping out because of unplanned pregnancies, the report said. In Pakistan, customs still discourage girls from having contact with male students and teachers, and girls who do attend often leave school to marry.
The 51 countries with serious gender gaps have a total school enrollment estimated at 600 million. The study estimates that the additional cost of educating as many girls as boys in those countries would be about $5.8 billion — and could nearly double in 10 years.
Despite the increase in the proportion of girls educated, when compared to boys, the number of girls in the gap continues to grow because of rapid growth in the number of school-age children, the report says.
The study ranked 132 nations according to the extent to which girls and boys differ in access to schooling. In order to cover as many countries as possible, it used figures from 1995 and compares them to 1985.
More than half the countries have no gender gap, including the United States where 99 percent of boys and girls go to school.
Ten countries — Nepal, Oman, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Togo, Lebanon, Congo, Egypt, Iran and Malawi — are cited as making the most progress in closing the gap between girls and boys in school. The inclusion of Middle East and poor African countries is striking because those regions, along with South Asia, have traditionally had the largest gender gap.