THE WORLD BANK knows it. Every development economist knows it. The education of girls is the surest way in the world of reducing poverty. If there is to be a serious attack on the billions of people deprived of the basic ingredients of a decent life, schools in poor countries have to be full of girls, as well as boys.
All the evidence shows that taking girls out of the fields and homes and putting them behind desks raises economic productivity, lowers infant and maternal mortality, reduces fertility rates and brings better environmental management. Countries that have pursued gender equality over the past three to four decades have grown faster and become more equal societies.
So why are 90 million primary-school-age girls not in school?
For the same reason that when Dickens was writing ``David Copperfield'' 150 years ago, girls were absent from the British educational system: Men in power mostly prefer it that way.
Or they are not interested enough in changing the situation to commit energy and money to doing so. Or perhaps they do not quite believe the mountains of studies that have established beyond question the link between the eradication of poverty and those years in a schoolroom by ranks of girls.
High-profile outside intervention -- through projects such as those the World Bank has begun successfully with a number of countries -- will be needed to bring change in the corridors of power run by conservative men.
Of course, even if it could be proved that there was no development payoff from gender equality in schools, the education of girls would still be a worthy cause. Education is a human right, and its denial is a scar on the international community.
To be born a girl in a rural area in Nepal, Pakistan, Indonesia, Morocco, Togo or Sudan -- half a dozen of the most shameful performers -- is the worst of fates. It means being doomed to a life without education or clean water, with marriage and babies coming too early, too many births, babies who die of preventable diseases, backbreaking work in the fields, emotional subordination to a husband and his family, and an early death. Sexual exploitation of girls and women is another route open for male domination of the female deprived of education. The uneducated woman transmits to her children the same doomed life.
Every year, almost 12 million children under the age of 5 needlessly die of infectious diseases associated with poverty. But each additional year spent by their mothers in primary school lowers the risk of premature child deaths by about 8 percent. In Pakistan, for example, an extra year of school for 1,000 girls could prevent 60 infant deaths.
But it doesn't have to be this way. In the southern Indian state of Kerala -- communist in politics and Christian in ideology -- where literacy is universal, the infant mortality rate is the lowest in the developing world. Schooling is the route to lowering infant mortality.
Each extra year of school also translates into lower fertility and a decrease in maternal deaths. In Brazil, for instance, illiterate women have an average of 6.5 children, whereas those with secondary education have 2.5 children.
And with women and girls being the major farmers in Africa and south Asia, their education offers a chance to develop more efficient farming practices, improve output and raise awareness of the ecological needs of the land.
In countries with terrible records, the central question of the high cost to the family of their girls being in school, instead of working in the home with younger siblings or on agricultural tasks, requires government leadership to change attitudes radically. While the family's immediate interest is to have their girls working at home, it is in the national interest, as well as in the interest of both the girls and their future families, to override the short-term perspective.
Victoria Brittain and Larry Elliott wrote this article for the Guardian newspaper in Britain (www.guardian.co.uk).
© 2000 Mercury Center