In Malawi, an orphaned girl lurks just outside the schoolhouse - one child on her hip and another holding her hand - straining to hear. This is as close as she can come to education, snatching it for an hour or so between chores.
Around the world, she has 58 million sisters. The forces that keep them out of primary school are daunting: poverty, war, disease, the threat of sexual violence. But the past two decades have shown tremendous progress for girls' education, experts say, and many developing countries are poised to reap wide benefits if they stay on track in closing the gender gap.
"The more time girls and boys spend in school - especially girls - the more likely we are to see their health improve and the education of their children improve and the poverty cycle in their families change," says Chloe O'Gara, who witnessed the Malawi girl's hunger for learning in her role as director of education for Save the Children, a US-based international humanitarian organization. "It's a really transforming investment.... [But] it's a tremendous challenge ... and the international community is going to have to come together and help."
Today, Save the Children releases its first study of progress in girls' education - part of its larger State of the World's Mothers report. It examines the track record of 71 developing countries, highlighting strategies that have begun to equalize girls' and boys' opportunities for schooling.
"Some of the poorer countries have been able to do it because they have the political will," Ms. O'Gara says. Benin, one of the Top 10 countries in the progress report, has devoted 31 percent of its central budget to bolstering education and has introduced reforms that emphasize girls' needs.
Five years ago, the United Nations set eight Millennium Development Goals. One of the earliest targets was to eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education by this year. UNICEF reported last month that 91 developing countries are on track at the primary level, but there are still notable gaps. In Yemen, for instance, only 60 girls attend primary school for every 100 boys. At the secondary level, only 22 out of 75 countries surveyed were meeting the goal.
Gender parity is one mile marker on the way to another of the goals: universal enrollment in primary school by 2015. It doesn't mean much for girls to be equal with boys, observers note, if large numbers of both sexes are out of school. Worldwide, UNICEF reports primary school enrollment is now about 86 percent, up from 82 percent in 2001.
Behind the increased numbers are the stories of girls who can now choose a much different path in life. Om Kalsoum, a young teenager in Egypt whose family had kept her out of school, used to cry when she saw other children walking in their uniforms, the report recounts.
But when Save the Children set up a program for girls in her village, she was allowed to enroll. Now able to read and write, she runs a bakery and hopes to teach Arabic. An uncle helped persuade her family to postpone her marriage until she finishes high school.
Gender bias in the family is not necessarily the main barrier. "We tend to blame parents and so-called traditional attitudes ... [but] attitudes among policymakers and parents have changed quite radically," says Frances Vavrus, associate professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "When schools are built closer to a village so that parents don't have to send their daughters a long way, the schools fill up.... Parents in many places in the world have seen that girls are often the 'better investment,' if you want to use that language, because they may be more likely to send remittances and to care for their parents in their old age."
Conditions in schools also determine whether or not girls attend. Something as simple as adding separate outhouses for girls and boys can boost enrollment - because girls have more privacy and hygiene concerns, and families fear for their safety.
Having enough quality teachers is another factor; if parents don't value the education being offered, they'll be less inclined to give up the labor and income that children can provide. But this has been especially difficult in countries where AIDS has decimated the ranks of teachers. When parents are ill, there's also more burden on children - especially girls - to care for family members.
Indeed, more than half the girls out of school are in areas hit hard by armed conflict or AIDS.
Health, employment, and education all need to be addressed simultaneously for girls' education to bear its promised fruit, says Professor Vavrus, an expert on gender and development with a speciality in sub-Saharan Africa. She advocates debt relief, saying some countries spend three to four times as much for debt service as for education and health initiatives.
Boosting girls' enrollment is not a panacea, she adds. "School is not necessarily an empowering institution.... Being pushed to have sex with teachers is not an uncommon occurrence."
Each country requires a unique combination of solutions, O'Gara says, but she, too, urges more international aid. Save the Children is calling on the United States to double its foreign-assistance budget for basic education to $800 million for fiscal year 2006.
Bolivia, which topped the progress list, made gains by focusing on rural indigenous communities and encouraging girls' participation. Before sweeping reforms in 1995, only 10 percent of Bolivian children completed primary school. Now it's up to 78 percent, and the enrollment gender gap has been eliminated.
Bangladesh made similar progress by eliminating school fees for girls at targeted grade levels. It also launched a program to supply families with food in exchange for keeping children in school.
In a number of countries - particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean - the gap actually favors girls, so there's also a need to ensure boys' equal participation. (Along with 58 million girls, 45 million boys are not in primary school - out of 650 million children in that age group worldwide.)
Eliminating primary-school fees tops the list of Save the Children's recommendations. The group also calls for more educational opportunities in conflict areas, and for the involvement of men in reducing the threat of sexual violence against girls in school.
A large part of the economic "miracle" in Asian countries such as South Korea has been due to investment in girls' education, O'Gara says. "We know that solutions tested over the past 15 years work.... There's such a thirst for learning that when obstacles are taken down, kids really do get into school, and they learn in the most amazing circumstances."