- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

Raise your hand if you ever skipped school or hated doing homework. Wow, there are a lot of hands out there.

School may have seemed onerous for many of us, but consider the alternative: never having the opportunity to go to school at all.

As the father of four children, three of them girls, I find the latest news on global education shocking: Girls are still way behind boys in attending school in many developing countries, 1 in 4 girls don’t finish the fifth grade, and 58 million girls don’t go to school at all.

Om Kalsoum, an 18-year-old featured in a new report on girls’ education by Save the Children, once was one of these lost girls. She would cry as she looked out the window of her home in Daquouf, Egypt, and watched the other girls walking to school in their uniforms. “My biggest dream in life was to become educated,” she said.

Her parents didn’t believe in educating girls. But four years ago, she got a second chance. A sympathetic uncle, who helped launch a school for adolescent girls in her rural village, convinced her parents to let her take part in the Ishraq (meaning “sunrise” in Arabic) program.

Previously, Om Kalsoum had been allowed to leave her home only to visit relatives. Now, she is working toward a high school degree — and dreams of becoming an Arabic teacher and expanding a bakery she opened using business skills she learned in the Ishraq program. Education changed Om Kalsoum’s life.

Around the world, millions of girls yearn for a similar chance at a better life. But for too many of these girls, poverty and discrimination are keeping them from their dreams.

However, according to Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers 2005 report — a new analysis of 20 years of girls’ education in the developing world — it needn’t be this way.

The report highlights 11 developing nations, such as Om Kalsoum’s Egypt, that are making great strides in educating girls despite extensive poverty and long-held cultural roadblocks. Save the Children has found girls are going to school in greater numbers in nations mired in poverty — such as Kenya and Mongolia — while educational opportunities are seriously lacking for girls who live in nations with gross domestic products 6 to 29 times larger — such as Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

How are poor nations making such progress? By harnessing political will and creating educational plans that work. With one of the world’s largest educational systems and rural cultural norms that generally keep women and girls at home, Egypt had a significant educational gender gap in poor and rural areas in the late 1990s.

The Egyptian government, with strong support from the international community, launched its Educational Enhancement Program specifically to get more girls into schools in the country’s poor areas. They built more schools so girls would not be forced to travel long distances. They encouraged parental support through community mobilization and awareness campaigns. They offered a stipend to pay for girls’ school supplies. They also created the “second chance schooling” program Om Kalsoum attended — for older girls.

The Egyptian government, in other words, made girls’ education a top priority. As a result, gross enrollment rates for girls increased 10 percent in six years.

What has inspired Egypt and the 10 other countries highlighted by Save the Children — Bangladesh, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Gambia, Mexico, Morocco and Vietnam — to educate their girls?

These nations have recognized their No. 1 path for progress is girls’ education. Where governments have invested in education for girls and women, economies have been transformed. In the 1950s, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea had education and economic statistics like those of sub-Saharan Africa today. But now 94 percent of their people, including women, can read and write, resulting in the “Asian tiger” economic miracle.

Where girls’ education is on the upswing, educated women not only lead healthier and more prosperous lives, but their children grow up healthier and have higher standards of living. By making a concerted effort to educate girls, developing countries can expect a steady improvement in the health and prosperity of present and future generations.

With these benefits in mind, many U.S. private and corporate donors are supporting girls’ education worldwide. The Mattel Children’s Foundation, for example, supports Save the Children’s global efforts around early childhood development in places like Mali, Malawi, Uganda, Guinea, Afghanistan and the Philippines, as well as in underserved rural communities right here in the United States. These important programs give younger children, especially girls, access to quality education, which opens doors to opportunity.

But with at least 9 million more girls than boys left out of school every year, much more needs to be done. The global community — particularly the United States — must step up its support, financial and otherwise, to ensure every girl or woman, no matter where she lives, has access to education.

Girls’ education can change the course of a nation, and our world. And the immediate benefits can be seen on the faces of girls like Om Kalsoum and my daughters, who look toward a future of incredible promise.

Bob Eckert is the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Mattel Inc.

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