"Education is everybody's human right," UNICEF said on Thursday in The State of the World's Children 2004.  

"It means that no girl, however poor, however desperate her country's situation, is to be excluded from school. There is no acceptable excuse for denying her the opportunities to develop her fullest potential." 

While countries that signed the UN Millennium Declaration pledged to achieve universal primary education by 2015, a target that already is slipping out of sight in some regions, the UNICEF report stressed the need for "gender parity." 

It says that regions that have invested in girls' education, such as South-East Asia, experience faster rates of development. 

"Countries that fail to raise the education level to the same as that of men increase the cost of their development efforts and pay for the failure with slower growth and reduced income." 

Family health

The organisation says educating girls has a multiplier effect -because they in turn send their children to school, because the girls learn to defend themselves against HIV/AIDS and because they are less likely to be forced into prostitution.

Girls' education also paid off in better family health. "To educate a girl is to educate a whole family," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a foreword to the report.

"Countries that fail to raise the education level to the same as that of men increase the cost of their development efforts and pay for the failure with slower growth and reduced income." 

UNICEF report

"And what is true of families is also true of communities and, ultimately, whole countries. Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls." 

UNICEF urged government leaders to include girls' education as an essential component of development efforts and create a national ethos "so that communities are as scandalised and concerned about girls kept out of school as they are about boys and girls more visibly exploited at work." 

'Child-friendly'

It was also important, the agency said, to train teachers to be aware of the importance of gender parity, rather than favouring boys and leaving girls "to sweep the floors or clean the toilets." 

Leaving the girls without education
expose them to exploitation - UN

It urged the adoption of "child-friendly" schools where children feel safe, where their self-esteem is respected and which are healthy with adequate sanitation and separate toilets for girls. 

"Schools can be a powerful protective force in most children's lives, especially for girls and others who are highly vulnerable," the report said. "This is not only because schools physically remove children from potential harm for much of the day but also because they help children learn skills and gather information so they can help themselves." 

Failing to understand

The failure to educate girls represented a massive failure of
understanding. "Human rights principles have not been integrated into economic development programs, and the ultimate objective of development, human well-being instead of economic performance has thus been lost," UNICEF said. 

"Those who are the most marginalised, women, girls and the poor, lose out the most. Such discrimination, unrecorded, leaves the rights of the marginalized far from the thoughts of development policy makers."