Ikaneng Primary School in Soweto, South Africa

HARARE, Zimbabwe and NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Sydney Mamrura’s greatest joy is the daughter he put through high school and university who sits in an air conditioned office while he sells tomatoes and onions on the street of Harare, the hard-pressed capital of Zimbabwe.

His greatest sorrow is that he doubts that he will be able to provide his youngest daughter, 14-year-old Violet, the same advantages because of the high price of sending her to school.

“She’s so bright, so bright,” Mamrura says sadly, explaining how Violet stays home on the days when he cannot afford the daily bus fare of about $1.40 she needs to get to school. This school year, he says, may be her last. Since he lost his job when his factory closed, he has no way to pay for tuition next year, the cost of 1,000 tiny packets of tomatoes, more than he sells in a month.

Mamrura is not alone.

In a report released today, the U.S. based humanitarian organization, Save the Children, says that 58 million girls around the world are still not in school. Of those who are enrolled, 1-in-4 won’t complete fifth grade.

The findings, which were released to coincide with Mother’s Day, provide a way of measuring the extent to which global commitments to improving girls’ education have failed.

Five years ago, activists and education specialists pledged at the World Forum on Education in Dakar, Senegal, to eliminate the gender disparity in education by the end of 2005 and commit to the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. This year marks the first in accountability, yet 104 million children are still out of school, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia; 60 percent of those children are girls.

Educating Girls Is Cost Effective

Development experts agree that educating girls is among the most effective long-term investments a country can make, helping to cut HIV infection rates, reduce mother and child mortality and pull families out of endemic poverty. Yet in large parts of Africa and Asia, school fees and the high price of transportation, uniforms and school books keep millions of girls out of school.

“No one can say we have done enough to achieve education parity,” said Marilyn Blaeser at a panel on girls’ education during a recent meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York to review a broad range of global goals set for women 10 years ago in Beijing. Blaeser is CARE’s director of Basic and Girls’ Education Unit and a representative for the Global Campaign for Education, a Belgium-based international coalition of civil organizations.

Blaeser, along with many others, say that what girls need now is a global commitment to abolish school fees that bar more girls than boys in poor countries from entering school. She also advocates compensating families for what they lose when their daughters–often important contributors to the family income–go to school instead of work. She estimates that doing this would require about $7 billion a year needed from donors in predictable, flexible aid, in addition to widespread debt relief that would free up domestic money for education and other social services.

Throwing school doors wide open is a different remedy from what the World Bank and other international financial institutions prescribed in the past.

For many decades these institutions insisted that if poor countries charged fees for basic services like health care and education the governments would be able to provide better quality services if they could recoup some of the costs for social services. Paying for services was also promoted as a way of instilling civic responsibility.

But during the 1990s school fees came under growing fire from those who blamed them for perpetuating poverty and preventing a society from developing the skills necessary to economic development. By 2000 the World Bank had joined the list of those embracing free primary education.

Free Education Important for Girls

Free education, experts say, is particularly important for girls. With a few exceptions like Lesotho, a tiny mountainous nation in Southern Africa which sends more girls to schools than boys, poor families in many countries often choose to send boys to school first, especially if they cannot afford the school fees for all their children.

In addition to the cost of fees, parents are also giving up the financial gain of having their young daughters work. Jill Christianson, senior professional associate for International Relations at the National Education Association, says, for example, the average girl in Nepal works 10 hours per day. Boys who are expected to do less household work like fetching water and cooking usually spent far less time working.

The increasing burden of HIV/AIDS, meanwhile, means large numbers of girls are kept home to care for ill parents, exacerbating girls’ educational neglect.

In the years since the 2000 Dakar Forum, a number of African countries have begun eliminating school fees, especially at the primary school level.

Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi all saw massive increases in enrollment–in some cases by as much as 59 percent–when school fees were eliminated. In many cases, the new beneficiaries of free education were girls.

For children like Violet, who lives in Zimbabwe, the costs of transportation, books, and uniforms can be almost as great a barrier to education as official tuition. On many days, her father says, he simply cannot afford to pay the cost of transportation to school.

When school fees are eliminated, but funding for schools not increased, education in poor schools suffers–increased student to teacher ratios being one example. Schools are also often forced to fill the funding gap by requiring students to pay other education-related costs, such as buying their own textbooks or stationery.

In Zambia, for instance, some students are even required to bring their own desks to school, according to Susan Matale of the World Council of Churches, who also participated in the Beijing +10 panel discussion.

While progress on girls education is being made, most experts agree that not enough is being done. Changing policies, like eliminating school fees is part of the answer, but without more money for teachers, buildings and books, millions of children–boys and girls–will be doomed to lives of illiteracy and poverty.

“It’s everybody’s business to get girls into school now because it is their lives and the lives of their children,” said Rima Salah, deputy executive director of UNICEF, at the U.N. panel on girls education. “Education is the most effective investment for development.”

Nicole Itano is a Johannesburg-based freelance reporter. Brooke Linville is a freelance writer in New York.

For more information:

Home Ec Stirs Domestic Politics into College Mix:

United Nations Girls’ Education Intiative:

Teen Girls Flooding Kenya’s New No-Cost Schools: