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Poverty, conflict and girls' right to education

By Pi James

In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative and the global conference entitled 'E4 - Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality' to be held in Dakar, Senegal from 17 to 20 May, UNICEF has been featuring a series on girls' education and gender equality. The following report is part of that series.

NEW YORK, USA, 20 May 2010 – More than half of the 72 million primary school-aged children out of school are girls. These children mostly come from the world’s poorest communities and, in many cases, from nations with long histories of conflict.

 AUDIO: Listen now

For the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), UNICEF Radio podcast moderator Amy Costello spoke with Bob Prouty, Head of the Secretariat of the Education for All – Fast Track Initiative, a global partnership between donor and developing countries to speed progress towards the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015; and Suaad Allami, Iraqi lawyer and human rights activist.

The podcast discussion covered the ways poverty affects girls’ and boys’ access to education across the globe.

Barriers to schooling

Mr. Prouty said the exclusion of girls from schooling is a result of many factors. Poverty, he added, is “highest in line.”

Girls are often put to work around the home or sent out to earn money. “The more the financial challenges are felt by families, the more likely they are to see the opportunities for girls to bring in some additional income,” Mr. Prouty said. The family income lost if girls are not working – coupled in many places with the high direct cost of schooling – is likely to be a major obstacle to educating girls, he added.

Culture and tradition can also play a “big role” in preventing girls from receiving a quality education, said Ms. Allami. In her native Iraq, she noted, ”culture is one of the [biggest] challenges to face these girls when they want to continue their studies.”

Conflict the biggest obstacle

Ms. Allami said she has witnessed significant changes in education levels over time in her country. In the past, she noted, Iraqi women were highly educated compared with other girls in the region.

In contemporary Iraq, she said, “many families prevent their girls from going to schools, to universities. They are concerned about their safety, kidnappings, killings.” Today, literacy rates are low throughout Iraq, especially among women and girls. Violence and years of economic sanctions associated with past wars have made it particularly difficult for girls to receive an education, said Ms. Allami.

“Conflict disproportionately keeps kids out of school,” Mr. Prouty agreed, adding that it is “the single biggest remaining obstacle towards education for all.”

And armed conflict exacerbates the problems of poverty. “Conflict invariably has a larger impact on the poorest families,” said Mr. Prouty.

Positive changes

Despite these challenges, the Fast Track Initiative is leading to some improvements. “We’re seeing very positive movement in terms of parents trying to get their children started in school,” said Mr. Prouty.

But in developing countries, girls still drop out of school at higher rates than boys. As more children – including more girls – are enrolled in school, an increasingly central challenge will be to keep them there.

“The challenges we see, more and more, are in trying to get girls through schooling and up into higher levels of school,” said Mr. Prouty.


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13 May 2010:
For the 10th anniversary of UNGEI, UNICEF Radio moderator Amy Costello spoke with two guests about how poverty affects girls’ and boys’ access to education.

 AUDIO listen

Related links
Beyond access: UNGEI special podcast on quality education for life
 with audio


Breaking the silence: UNGEI special podcast on gender-based violence in schools
 with audio