School choice in hard times

December 01, 1998

An excerpt of a New York Times editorial that was published Saturday:

ONE of the most damaging consequences of the world's economic troubles is that parents are pulling their children out of school. Girls are the first casualty. In most poor and even middle-income countries, many girls stay home while their brothers go to primary school. Countries are now recognizing the harm caused by this educational gender gap, however, and some are trying new ideas to get girls into school and keep them there.

Even in some countries where primary school is free, parents must pay for uniforms, shoes, supplies and transportation. Families also lose the economic contribution the child can make. Since girls are likely to care for siblings and help with housework, parents tend to need their labor at a younger age than boys'.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where only half the children ages 6 to 11 go to school, 68 girls are enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys. The gap is just as bad in many South Asian and Middle Eastern nations.

Rural zones worldwide are also home to the most traditional families and people who may not speak the language of instruction. More important, rural families are poorer than those in cities, and their schools are worse.

The past 10 years have seen new attention given to the consequence of keeping girls out of school, spurred by several U.N. conferences on population and women's issues. Studies show that attention to girls' education directly affects a nation's progress.

While educated men have more children than their unschooled counterparts, education encourages women to marry later and have fewer and healthier children.

The good news is that many of the programs to keep girls in school have been successful. Malawi doubled girls' school attendance from 1990 to 1996 by eliminating school fees and uniforms and adding 22,000 new teachers, so students are more apt to find a school nearby.

Scholarships compensate families for the loss of girls' income in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Guatemala. In some Mexican schools, children can bring the young siblings in their care, which also gives the babies a more stimulating environment.

These pilot programs have not spread very far. Traditional societies can be suspicious of focusing on girls. The World Bank and regional development banks embrace girls' schooling, but the programs needed are huge and expensive. Educating girls, however, is a good investment, producing lower birth rates, healthier children and a better-schooled and richer population all around.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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