EVERY school day throughout the world, millions of girls sit at home while their brothers attend school.
The result for countries with a large gender gap in schooling is high infant-mortality rates and higher family size, according to a study on the education of girls released today by Population Action International (PAI), a research and advocacy organization. Only access to birth control has a greater impact on family size than education.
In the 112 countries for which data were available, which account for 95 percent of the world's population, 76 million more boys than girls are attending school, the study found. Many developing countries have cut back on social spending in the face of economic recession, and spending on education has not kept up with the rapidly growing school-age population.
When faced with a choice over whom to educate in a family, many parents choose their sons. In addition, many girls leave school because of marriage, pregnancy, or simply because they are needed to help at home, often with younger siblings. Sometimes parents are reluctant to send girls out of a village or to allow girls to study with boys.
``There is a perception of higher payoff for sending boys to school,'' says Shanti Conly, the report's editor. But, she adds, ``there is a growing realization that education has benefits at many levels, such as in controlling fertility and reducing population growth.''
When less well-off countries have decided to put their resources into education, a decline in the educational gender gap has been observed. Cuba, Mongolia, Uruguay, and the Philippines all scored well in PAI's ranking system for countries' educational gender gaps.
The worst ranking went to Chad, where the average adult woman has less than one month of education. France, where the average is 11 years, holds the highest ranking.
PAI estimates that $6.5 billion would need to be spent in the 50 countries identified as having a significant gender gap. ``Taking population growth into consideration, the cost of closing the gender gap would rise to more than $18 billion in constant dollars by 2005,'' the report says.
PAI offers several strategies: building more schools and putting them closer to the communities they would serve, hiring more women teachers, and providing more scholarships to girls.
Ms. Conly notes her own experience on a project in Bangladesh that gave scholarships for girls to go to school. ``It was in one of the most conservative districts - girls were practically locked up after puberty,'' she says. But after the scholarship program was introduced, ``girls were riding bikes to school. There was a change in societal attitudes about girls and school.''
Girls who have more education tend to marry later, have fewer children, and be in better health, the authors write. ``A girl's education is also an investment in future generations; the more educated a mother is, the more likely her children - particularly her daughters - are to enroll in and stay in school.''