In the decade to 2000 the number of girls in primary school increased faster than boys, yet they still make up 57 per cent of the estimated 104 million young children without a school place, according to Unicef's State of the World's Children report 2004.
Only three-quarters of girls complete primary education compared to 85 per cent of boys.
In sub-Saharan Africa 43 per cent of girls are out of school compared to 38 per cent of boys. Many drop out after just a year or two. At the current rate of progress nearly one child in five will still fail to complete primary school in 2015. The majority will be girls.
Seondary pupil Awatif Marsy was one of three child representatives sent by Egypt to a meeting for the UN special session on children two years ago in Uganda. Yet till a one-classroom school opened in her village when she was eight years old, illiteracy was an inescapable fact of life. "If I hadn't gone to school, I would never have had that chance," she said of the conference. Now she is a role model for the other girls. "I myself want to be a teacher," she said,"so that I can pass on what I have learned to other children."
UN agencies say girls deprived of education are particularly vulnerable to poverty and hunger, sexual exploitation and child trafficking.
Numerous studies confirm that girls' education is the most effective means to advance human development. "What benefits girls will also benefit boys, while the reverse is not always true," according to Unicef.
Yet the outlook for the poorest countries is bleak. In more than 35 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than one in four girls are enrolled in secondary school. In countries like Guinea, Congo and Chad and Somalia and Tanzania, a dismal 5-7 per cent of girls continue beyond primary.
Some countries are on course to close the gender gap within a decade, but for others it simply will not happen without aid.
Unicef says that, with a few exceptions, rich countries and international agencies have so far substantially failed to meet aid commitments. Despite promises to ensure universal primary education by 2015, total aid to poor countries declined during the 1990s and bilateral aid to education plummeted even further.
The most recent conference of 22 donors in Norway last month "missed the opportunity to provide crucial funding for basic education ... and in doing so they have let down the world's children", said Anne Jellema of the Global Campaign for Education.