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World's biggest lesson tries to prick conscience of rich nations

"I wish my brothers and sisters came to school. I don't think staying away is good," says Moulayhata Walet Ibdadass. The girl from Mali is one of the lucky few. Only 10 per cent of girls in Mali go to school and a much lower proportion complete it.

Across the world 65 million girls - as many girls as in the whole of North America and Europe - are not in school and two-thirds of the estimated 861m illiterate adults worldwide are women.

Their plight was highlighted on Wednesday in an attempt to stage the world's biggest lesson. More than 800,000 children in more than 100 countries took part, including 2,500 at Wembley Arena. It was organised by the Global Campaign for Education (GCE), an international coalition of development organisations and unions, which is pressing world governments to keep their prom-ise to get an equal number of girls and boys into primary school by 2005. The campaign is seeking universal primary education by 2015.

Moulayhata, of Goa, northern Mali, has been helped by Talkitin Walet Farati, a fieldworker from a non-governmental organisation who talks to parents about the importance of educating girls.

The main practical obstacle is that girls have to walk alone to school, causing parents to fear for their safety. Ms Farati has persuaded many to move closer to the school so girls do not have to walk so far. Others feel their daughters are needed to work at home. But she tells them that education pays off in the long run. "Because I had an education, I was able to get a job at an adult literacy centre and help my family," she explains.

Her story is told in a new GCE report, A Fair Chance, which calls on rich countries to channel aid to countries committed to tackling the problem. As well as persuading poor parents of the benefits of educating girls, it recommends simple measures such as making schools safe for girls, hiring more female teachers, and removing fees.

These can have a huge impact: children of women who complete primary school are twice as likely to survive beyond the age of five, the report says. It says an extra $5.6billion per year would be enough to give every child in the world a primary place.

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