As International Literacy Day approaches the UN spotlights the parlous global state of girls' education.
The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) aims to improve girls'
education with an "acceleration campaign" in 25 countries, 15 of them in Africa, where the situation is most critical.
In these countries, Unicef is concentrating resources on improving its public information campaigns to promote girls' education. It is working closely with governments and partners to encourage girl-friendly schools and reach out-of-school girls.
Nigeria, one of the 25 countries, has an adult literacy rate of 72 per cent among males while only 56 per cent of females are literate. The country has a pronounced gender gap, with 10 per cent more boys than girls in primary school.
However, one school is seeking to buck this trend. The Kuje primary school, 30 miles from Abuja, the administrative capital of central Nigeria, was in an advanced state of decay and had fewer girls than boys when Unicef began to help it in 2001.
The 4,000-pupil school, once over-crowded, with dilapidated, unsafe classrooms, has been transformed into a safe haven with the help of the local community and funding from British Airways's Change for Good initiative. It is now a warm and stimulating place for children to learn, play and enjoy a good-quality education. The school specialises in science and has newly-equipped laboratories.
Providing separate toilet blocks for boys and girls changed the attitude of many parents as they were concerned about the lack of facilities for their daughters. The school has brought a new lease of life to education in Kuje as many parents have moved house to take advantage of its friendly learning environment.
Teacher Josephine Anakwue said: "Our parents didn't feel it was important for women to go to school. But in time, they started to see the importance of education."
Parent Zakari Haruna, whose 11-year-old daughter is a pupil at the school, said: "My sisters are not educated and even my wife didn't go to school.
After seeing the advantages of education I am determined, and she too is determined, that all our children be well educated."
Programmes like this are badly needed, says Unicef, as out of an estimated 860 million illiterate adults, two-thirds are women. Some 66m girls of primary-school age are missing from schools worldwide. They make up the vast majority of the 115m absent children who are being denied their right to education, perpetuating the generational cycle of illiterate women.
Every year that a girl is out of school increases the chances that she will be subjected to violence, abuse, exploitation and trafficking. It also increases her susceptibility to diseases such as HIVAids.
Education experts believe that educating girls has a profound impact on a country's development. Every year a girl is in school is a step towards preventing the loss of the next generation of girls and boys to infant mortality, malnutrition, illiteracy and under-development. An educated mother is more likely to protect her child from avoidable diseases with routine health check-ups, careful hygiene and a nutritious diet. She learns that her child can be safe from polio and measles through immunisation. The single most important barrier that prevents girls from attending and achieving in schools is gender discrimination, for a variety of reasons: family poverty, cultural resistance, religious tradition, early marriage and pregnancy, issues of safety and security, and even public opinion.
Kathryn Irwin is UNICEF's UK emergencies press officer www.unicef.orggirlseducation