© UNICEF/HQ99-0440/Chalasani

Goal: Achieve universal primary education

Target by 2005 (For Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women):
Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education.

While most of the Millennium Development Goals face a deadline of 2015, the gender parity target was set to be achieved a full ten years earlier - an acknowledgement that equal access to education is the foundation for all other development goals. Yet recent statistics show that for every 100 boys out of school, there are still 117 girls in the same situation. Until equal numbers of girls and boys are in school, it will be impossible to build the knowledge necessary to eradicate poverty and hunger, combat disease and ensure environmental sustainability. And millions of children and women will continue to die needlessly, placing the rest of the development agenda at risk.

Target by 2015:
Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling.

As of 2001 estimates around 115 million children of primary school age, the majority of them girls, do not attend school.

Educating girls advances development for all.

Meeting the Education Goal will speed progress toward every other Millennium Goal. Educating children helps reduce poverty and promote gender equality. It helps lower child mortality rates and promote concern for the environment. It is inextricably linked to Goal 3 – gender parity – as universal primary education by definition requires gender parity. Gender parity in primary education, meanwhile, is of limited worth if few children of either sex participate.

Further, education – specifically free primary school for all children – is a fundamental right to which governments committed themselves under the 1989 Convention of the Rights of the Child.

See map: Relationship to girlsÂ’ education and achieving poverty MDG

UNICEF advocates quality basic education for all, with an emphasis on gender equality and eliminating disparities of all kinds. In particular, getting girls into school and ensuring that they stay and learn has what UNICEF calls a “multiplier effect.” Educated girls are likely to marry later and have fewer children, who in turn will be more likely to survive and be better nourished and educated. Educated girls are more productive at home and better paid in the workplace, and more able to participate in social, economic and political decision-making.

School also offers children a safe environment, with support, supervision and socialization. Here they learn life skills that can help them prevent diseases, like how to avoid HIV/AIDS and malaria. They may receive life-saving vaccines, fresh water and nutrient supplementation at school. Educating a girl also dramatically reduces the chance her child will die before age five.

Conversely, denying children access to quality education increases their vulnerability to abuse, exploitation and disease. Girls, more than boys, are at greater risk of such abuse when they are not in school. For many villages, a school also provides a safe haven for children, a place where they can find companionship, adult supervision, latrines, clean water and possibly meals and health care.

Yet even these basics are beyond reach for hundreds of millions of children.  These children are deprived of their right to education because their families cannot afford school fees or other related costs, or because their communities are too poor or remote to have school facilities and supplies, or because they have to work to put food on the table. Children of indigenous populations or ethnic minorities often face discrimination and are excluded from education, as are children with disabilities.

In addition, HIV-AIDS has decimated schools, communities, and families around the world, creating orphans and other vulnerable children. Civil conflicts and humanitarian crises are also depriving children of the right to education.  Girls often bear the brunt of these problems. They are the first to be withdrawn from school if money is short or if household work needs attention, if family members need to be cared for, if the school is too far away, or in situations of pervasive insecurity. The effect? The promise of a new generation is largely lost.

For the Education Goal to be met, actions need to address both human and material needs – buildings, books and teachers – and the organic requirements of getting all children into school and ensuring they complete a quality education. These include gender equality in society, good health and nutrition, and the strong backing of governments and communities.

UNICEF responds by:

Engaging in outreach and advocacy. UNICEF stages global information campaigns on the importance of getting children to school, especially girls, and has committed $233 million to these efforts. For example, UNICEF’s ‘Go Girls! Education for Every Child’ campaign is about raising awareness, generating public support and mobilizing resources for ‘25 by 2005’, an accelerated effort to get girls in school in 25 countries. Such campaigns involve a wide range of partners – from children and teachers to religious leaders – and popular sports such as soccer and cricket to help get the word out. UNICEF also works directly with governments to highlight and address issues of gender discrimination or other roadblocks to education, such as school fees or forced child labour.

"Accompanying" countries in policymaking and implementation. For countries who seek such help, UNICEF provides sustained multi-sectoral support beyond funding. This includes being actively involved in day-to-day decision-making, without being obtrusive or trying to dictate terms, while respecting the vision that a country has set out for its own development and setting cooperation within wider development assistance frameworks.

More and more countries, for example, are adopting sector-wide approaches to education development, with UNICEF participating along with other key development partners in policy and planning processes.

UNICEF provides key support in collecting and sharing data on children’s educational status, helps establish stronger educational information and management systems, and shares good policy-making practices and innovations. UNICEF also advocates bold initiatives that can boost enrolments and participation, like abolishing school fees and reducing other costs, and devising an ‘essential learning package’ that can be used in emergency situations.

Promoting early child-care and development to ensure a ‘right start’ to education. Children’s learning capacities are severely restricted if they are hobbled by disease, malnutrition or developmental delays. UNICEF helps strengthen the capacity of communities and families to protect and care for disadvantaged groups, particularly children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

UNICEF also procures, raises awareness of and helps distribute vaccines for some 40 per cent of children in the developing world, and provides education and intervention to fight diseases like malaria, guinea worm and anaemia, all of which can keep children from attending school and learning. National campaigns and local outreach help educate in-home caregivers on best practices for good hygiene and nutrition, particularly breastfeeding.

Learning begins at birth and investing in quality early child care and development can substantially enhance childrenÂ’s lifetime potential for educational achievement and learning. UNICEF supports such efforts as community-based early child care and development programmes; parent education; and linking health, hygiene promotion, nutrition and other early intervention initiatives.

Intensifying partnerships for girlsÂ’ education. UNICEF serves as the lead agency for the United Nations GirlsÂ’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), a group of partners dedicated to achieving gender parity and equality targets in education. Launched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000, UNGEI has set a platform for action and a partnership framework for the global girlsÂ’ education movement. UNICEF is also a key partner in the Education for All Fast-Track Initiative launched by the World Bank in 2002, and supported by many bilateral donors, to help mobilize resources toward the Education Goal. The Initiative aims to help countries with policy, data, capacity-building and financial support, and to help them improve the efficiency of their resources.

UNICEF has also intensified Â’25 by 2005,Â’ an acceleration strategy involving advocacy, funding, problem-solving and community partnerships to improve gender parity in education in 25 diverse countries where assistance is most urgently needed in this area.

UNICEF is a strong supporter as well of the Girls Education Movement (GEM), a grassroots initiative active in countries throughout Africa and officially launched in Uganda in 2001. GEM clubs work to empower girls through education and sensitize communities on the importance of sending every child to school.

Helping schools provide supplies, safe water and sanitation. Water, sanitation and hygiene are crucial to getting and keeping girls in school, as they bear the brunt of unhygienic or non-existent latrines. The lack of clean and separate sanitation facilities in schools discourages many girls from attending school full time and forces some of them to drop out altogether, particularly as they approach adolescence and the onset of menstruation. Lack of water in the household also keeps girls away, as they are usually the ones designated to walk long distances to fetch the householdÂ’s water supplies. And children of both sexes are sapped of nutrients, energy and the ability to learn if they are infected with water-borne parasites.

UNICEF has a strong presence in school-based water, sanitation and hygiene projects, supporting initiatives in 73 countries such as supplying hand pumps to primary schools and training teachers in hygiene education. UNICEF also helps procure supplies like school-in-a-box, a pre-packaged kit of materials like exercise books, pencils, erasers and scissors, enough for a teacher and up to 80 students.

Safeguarding the right to education in emergencies. At any given time, between a quarter and a third of the countries that UNICEF is working in are affected by emergencies arising from conflict, economic crises, natural disasters or a combination of these.

To help provide a sense of normalcy, as well as safety and security from the heightened risk of violence and exploitation that children – particularly girls – experience in times like these, UNICEF helps provide tents, supplies and human resources as part of its Back to School programmes. UNICEF, working with partners, also helps organize mass back-to-school campaigns, and offers longer term assistance to governments to support resuming quality education activities, rehabilitating schools and infrastructure, and developing accelerated and adapted learning strategies for children who have missed schooling.


Globally, significant progress has been made in primary enrolment/attendance and if current trends continue, most of the countries in the Middle East/North Africa, East Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and Caribbean regions appear to be on course for 2015. In Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS) as well, while the rate of increase needs to improve, the target can certainly be met. In all of these regions, gains in enrolment/attendance also need to carry over into high rates of primary education completion.

The world is also making steady progress on overall enrolment/attendance. In 2001 the global primary net enrolment/attendance ratio (NE/AR) (1) was 82 per cent, meaning that a total of 115 million school-age children were out of primary school. Furthermore, UNICEFÂ’s projections show that in 2005 the percentage of primary-school-age children in school will rise to 86 per cent.

The achievement is significant – it means that if the world’s primary-school-age population remains constant or decreases between 2000 and 2005, as the UN has projected (3), the number of children out of primary school may now be below 100 million for the first time since these data have been recorded.

This will not be enough to ensure that every child benefits from a full course of primary education by 2015, however. The pace must be stepped up. The world will have to maintain an average annual rate of increase (AARI) in NE/AR of 1.3 per cent over the next 10 years. UNICEF estimates and projections indicate that three regions – Middle East/North Africa, South Asia and West/Central Africa – will not meet the gender parity goal in primary education by 2005, and will clearly have to achieve AARIs that are considerably higher to meet the Millennium Goal.

Global policies and strategies for the future will need to help countries achieve exponential growth in AARI, through a series of ‘quantum leaps’ in their enrolment rates.

UNICEF links


A view of the Millennium Development Goals
Low | High bandwidth
(Real player)





Voices of youth


For more information