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Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
UN appeal for girls' education
School pupils in Senegal
Girls' education a 'long-term investment' (Photo: Unesco)
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has made a powerful appeal for more education for girls.

Speaking at an international conference on education in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, he called on the world's technology millionaires to extend to girls' education the kind of help they had already given in the field of health.

Delegates from more than 180 countries are discussing the problems facing education worldwide and reviewing targets set 10 years ago.

Education worldwide
113m children out of school
Two-thirds are girls
Africa spent three times as much on debt repayments as on education
India spends twice as much on arms as on education
The UN says that although there have been major advances with more girls going to school and a real increase in world literacy, in some countries the situation had deteriorated.

Girls missing out

Social upheaval and the cutting of education spending have left 113m children out of school - despite pledges at a similar meeting in Thailand in 1990 to provide basic education for all children by 2000.

In his keynote address, Mr Annan said the education of girls was "a long-term investment which would pay very high returns".

Mr Annan pointed out that of the children who should be in school and are not, more than two thirds are girls.

Girls more likely to be forced to work
"When the choice has to be made between educating a boy and a girl, the girl is more likley to stay at home," Mr Annan said.

"When a family needs extra income, the girl is more likely to be sent to work."

Tussle over finances

How to finance education is likely to set the non-governmental organisations against the representatives of international financial institutions.

Since 1990
Aid budgets for education cut by nearly 25%
More schools have introduced fees
More adults are illiterate
On Tuesday, 400 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) gave their backing to a $8bn spending programme to secure universal primary education.

The NGOs, drawn from 180 countries, called on states taking part in the forum to "commit themselves firmly to the fundamental right of all children to a free and compulsory education by 2015".

Organisations insist that universal education means free education, pointing to numerous examples of children growing up illiterate simply because their parents cannot pay fees.

However sympathetic they may be to the idea of free education, governments in developing countries are forced to charge tuition fees owing to World Bank limitations on public spending.

Conference aims
Universal education for children
Quality teaching
Equal opportunities for girls, minorities, the handicapped and war victims
Adult literacy teaching
There are also fears that the governments of donor countries are putting a low priority on the gathering.

Education ministers who have gone to Dakar are almost all from developing countries, while rich countries are represented mostly development ministers and NGOs.

Only two heads of state, the host President Abdoulaye Wade and Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo, are attending the meeting.

Some progress

The education of girls is one area which has seen some improvement since the 1990 forum, even in traditionally difficult areas like Pakistan and the Middle East.

There is also optimism surrounding East Asia and most of Latin America, where literacy levels are relatively high and most of children are in school.

On the negative side:

  • Adult illiteracy - which the Thailand summit declared should be halved in 10 years - has actually increased in that time.
  • Since 1990, sub-Saharan Africa has spent an average of $12bn a year on debt repayments - three times what the region spent on basic education.
  • While organisations are pressing for universal primary education, some African countries are spending their education budgets on higher education for an elite, while some children remain illiterate.
  • The Asian financial crisis had a sharp effect on the number of children going to school.
  • The collapse of communism slashed public provision in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
  • Civil war in parts of West Africa and the Congo has kept children out of school
  • Aids has also taken its toll in Southern and Eastern Africa, with figures from Zambia indicating that the number of teachers dying of Aids exceeds the number of new teachers graduating

Educationalists point out that even where national figures look good, they can hide pockets of extreme deprivation.

They also say that more effort has been put into getting children into school, than into worrying about how long they stay or what they learn when they get there.

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