LAGOS, Nigeria (WOMENSNEWS)–She wants to be an engineer, but for now Blessing Ugwu works at a wooden stand over a gutter clogged with bricks and garbage. From dawn to well after dusk, the 12-year-old sells eggs, toilet paper, tinned mackerel and 20-cent soda you drink on the spot or pay extra for the bottle.

But this month, Ugwu’s mother will take over. The young girl will pull on her uniform and skip off to study.

"If I go to school, I’ll be somebody in the future," Ugwu says. "But if I don’t, I will be selling and I will be begging."

Only about one-third of Nigeria’s children ever attend secondary school, so if Ugwu finishes, she’ll be able to count her blessings. So will her country. According to the United Nations Population Fund, a 1 percent increase in the number of girls finishing secondary school will boost economic growth by 0.3 percent. From one perspective, Ugwu is just a little girl going to school. From another, she’s the clinking of coins in Nigeria’s bucket.

The world over, schooling girls makes economic sense. A similar increase in the number of boys finishing secondary school doesn’t yield the same returns, according to the population fund, or UNFPA. Part of the reason is that women are more likely to invest in their children’s health and education, further boosting economic growth.

Even basic education brings benefits. For each additional year a girl is in school, her wages as an adult rise by about 15 percent, according to UNICEF. Female literacy has also been linked to a drop in infant mortality. Babies born to mothers without formal education are twice as likely to die before age five.

Not Educating Women Means a Country is 50 Percent Less Competitive

"In this age of the skilled worker, not educating women is immediately cutting off 50 percent of your competitiveness as a country," says Pat Utomi, one of Nigeria’s leading economists and a professor at the Lagos Business School. "You focus on the girls, because there has been a deliberate neglect."

UNICEF says that, worldwide, 1 billion adults are illiterate–two-thirds of them women. Nearly 100 million children in the developing world don’t have access to education. And for every boy out of school, two girls are unable to attend–70 million girls.

It starts early: Fewer girls than boys finish primary school. By the time they reach 18, girls have, on average, 4.4 years less education than boys. Put another way, 81 million girls–49 million more than boys–have no access to primary school education.

The most important single factor driving the disparity is economic. The harder it is to send children to school, the more likely girls’ education will suffer. In many poor countries, families with limited funds are forced to decide whom they will send to school. Either they need help around the house or at work, or they can’t afford the costs–transportation, supplies and fees–of schooling all their children. Usually, it’s the daughters that miss out.

"There’s these cultural beliefs that, since women are just women, no matter how much you educate them they’re just going to be someone’s wife," says Asabe Audu a program manager at Baobab, a Lagos-based organization promoting women’s human rights.

Gender gaps can reach extremes in conservative, rural areas, where traditional practices can impede a girl’s education. In northern Nigeria, for instance, early marriage is widely seen as ensuring a bride’s chastity. The average wedding age is just over 15, a fact with unfortunate consequences. In 1999, a Nigerian girl was less likely to graduate from school than to drop out to get married.

International Education Pledge Still Leaves 100 Million Girls and Boys Unschooled

Yet some progress is being made, if only slowly. A 1990 plan by the international community–in the U.N. World Summit for Children–to achieve universal primary education by 2000 has been only mildly successful. In the intervening 10 years, the number of out-of-school children dropped 20 percent from 127 million. And though the gender gap closed slightly in some countries, it remained steady in poorer countries and in regions, especially rural areas, with large barriers to access.

Efforts to improve girls’ education have been quite creative. In Afghanistan, where religious law restricts girls from going to school, courses are broadcast by radio. And traveling schools follow the nomadic people in countries like Sudan and Nigeria. They make it easier to school all children, which means girls are more likely to join the boys in the classroom.

Unfortunately, higher education remains far beyond the reach of the vast majority of students, and correspondingly, there the gender gap is worse.

Asked if she planned to attend university so that she could become an engineer, young Ugwu drops her eyes toward the gutter. "It costs money," she says quietly. "I don’t think we have it." In her country’s universities, only one out of three students is a girl.

Stephan Faris is a free-lance writer based in Lagos, Nigeria, covering Africa.

For more information:

Planet Wire:

United Nations Children’s Fund:

Save the Children:

Saving Women’s Lives:

World Education Forum: