More girls are going to primary school across the world, but more needs to be done to stop them dropping out at high school level, say education experts.
Aid workers, teachers and government officials from 22 countries this week met in the Senegalese capital Dakar for milestone three-day global talks aimed at finding ways to keep more girls in school.
The United Nations Girls Education Initiative’s E4 conference comes 10 years after the World Education Forum helped launch government action plans to reach the 2015 Millennium Development targets for education.
Nearly 72 million primary school age children were not enrolled in school in 2007, according to the UN Children's Fund. More than half of those not in school are girls, and more than two-thirds of them are in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia.
Over the past 10 years, school enrolment has gone up and the gender gap in schools has closed in many regions, but the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) director, Anthony Lake, says there is still much work to be done.
"Unless we all work harder, there may still be 56 million children out of school in 2015. 56 million lives blighted,” he said. “That’s 56 million development opportunities wasted. All of our development work - child survival, maternal and child health, child protection - all of it in the most disadvantaged communities hinges on educating girls, as well as boys. It is the only way to make sustainable progress, sustainable economic development," he said.
Even in Senegal, where the number of public schools has doubled in the last decade, there is still work to be done to achieve gender equality in schools. Speaking at a press conference at the start of the talks, Mr Lake said girls in one Dakar school explained to him some of the daily challenges they face, such as the lack of bathrooms in the school, bullying from boys, and a lack of textbooks.
Girls who are educated can not only contribute to their families and their communities, says Unicef, but are also at lower risk of violence, abuse, exploitation and diseases, such as HIV and Aids.
"Retention is the issue for girls' education," May Rihani, who co-chaired the meeting with David Wiking.
And quality up-to-date education is key to getting children to stay in school, said Mr Wiking. “Neither girls nor boys will stay in school if they are not getting a quality education. He said violence in schools and poor-quality teaching are driving the gender gap wider. "Millions of children go to school and do not learn. We need to look beyond education and understand why they don't learn.schools should not be crime scenes."