The Millennium Declaration, adopted by world leaders in 2000, set ambitious goals and targets to be achieved by 2015. At the end of 2007, just past the midpoint of this process, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) seem almost as elusive as they were in 20001. This is particularly true for the second and third Goals, which aim to "achieve universal primary education" and "promote gender equality and empower women", respectively. Yet it is vital that the momentum for change not stall or stop, especially since the basic human rights of millions of children depend on the international community to keep the promises made.

For over a decade, education for girls has been identified as one of the best solutions to reversing the relentless trend of poverty and disease devastating large portions of sub-Saharan Africa. Not only does ensuring access to education for girls directly improve the feasibility of MDGs 2 and 3, it also has a positive impact on the other six Goals. Camfed's almost 15 years of experience has demonstrated the direct and indirect benefits of educating girls and young women: reduction of rural poverty (MDG 1), improved maternal health (MDG 5) and lower incidences of HIV/AIDS (MDG 6) are but some of the positive outcomes when a girl is educated.

Recent studies corroborate what Camfed has observed and fostered on the ground: girls who complete primary and secondary education tend to marry later, have smaller families and earn significantly higher wages2. Girls' education has been posited as a "vaccine" against HIV/AIDS, with comparative analysis of data from Zambia, for example, of non-educated and educated women showing a substantial difference in infection rates3. Educating a girl changes her destiny, as well as those of her future children, and ensures that she can contribute to the economic life of her community.

Girls in rural areas of Africa are excluded from education not because of cultural resistance or unwillingness, but because of poverty -- the main barrier to girls' education. Progress towards universal primary education has been made, especially after national Governments abolished school fees and increased expenditure; but there are still 24.4 million girls out of school in sub-Saharan Africa4. In 2005, the total net enrolment ratio of girls in primary education was only 66 per cent, and an even lower 24 per cent for secondary education5. Given the high percentage of girls excluded from education, the recognition of the multiple and long-term benefits of educating girls, and the targets set by the MDGs, the case for increasing and facilitating access to education as an antidote against the current situation seems clear and straightforward.

The international community, including world leaders, such as Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom6, has reiterated its commitment to girls' education numerous times since 2000. Yet, while there is widespread agreement that more must be done and spent on improving girls' primary school enrolment and completion rates, there is still little consensus on how this should be achieved. This is, however, vital for any real progress to be made, since it is not a question of different methodologies that is at the centre of current debates, but rather a more fundamental question of what is meant by "education for all".

For Camfed, "education for all" means that all children, not just the academically gifted or elites, must be given the chance to complete their education in a safe environment. Our work in rural communities of sub-Saharan Africa is underpinned and guided by the principle that education is a basic human right and all children must have access. Accordingly, we provide the necessary means for rural girls to go to school, since they are the group most likely to be deprived of this right on account of their entrenched poverty and marginalized social status1. Camfed's model provides for all girls their essential school needs: uniforms, shoes, stationery and books, school and examination fees, and when necessary, boarding necessities. This comprehensive package is vital for poor girls whose parents are unable to afford for any of these necessary items. The situation that Camfed has witnessed all too often is that girls drop out of school to take on low-paid employment, usually in exploitative conditions, or they resort to paid sex with an older man in order to secure their education, at the cost of their lives in the long term, given the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on this age group7.

Camfed's model does not stop there. Through our network of Camfed-trained school mentors, we ensure that girls are fully supported emotionally and academically. This is especially vital for recently orphaned children. In some schools with which Camfed partners, 40 per cent of children have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. Since Camfed sees education as an ongoing investment, our programmes also include business training and grants to rural young women, many of whom are part of our 7,500-member alumnae network, Cama (Camfed Association). These young women are demonstrating the incalculable benefits of educating a girl: they are supporting over 25,000 children (excluding their own family members) with the earnings they have made from their businesses. At one time, these girls had no chance of continuing their education beyond primary school, they are now confident young women who are being invited to speak to global audiences on the need to help educate and unlock the potential of many more girls -- potential that is currently being lost.

Increasing access does not have to mean that quality of education is compromised. It does, however, require a heavy investment in building up local capacity and infrastructure in order to prevent existing resources from being strained and stretched. Some Governments have already risen to the challenge. For example, in 2002 the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania launched the Primary Education Development Plan, which stimulated unprecedented investment in primary education and abolished school fees. To meet demand, the national government also invested in the training of tens of thousands more teachers and provided grants for renovation, textbooks and construction of new classrooms and schools. Results were immediate: net primary school enrolment rose from less than 60 per cent in 2000 to 96 per cent in 20068. The Tanzanian example illustrates that increasing the numbers of enrolment does not have to compromise the quality of education, provided that long-term planning and government investment take place. Increase in numbers of children stimulates demand and puts pressure on Governments to improve educational resources. Ensuring education for all, therefore, actually pushes up quality and standards in the long term.

Arguments have been put forward on the benefits of providing support to a limited few who have demonstrated academic potential in order to maximize investments and guarantee a future well-educated elite. Privileging a select group of children, even when this selection is based on academic criteria, betrays the principle of education for all. While academic indicators may be more impressive, such an approach would deny millions of children their right to an education and, more importantly, would perpetuate the inequality that has existed in the system for decades.

The selection of girls that Camfed supports is based solely on need -- not academic performance or potential. Our staff and community partners on the ground identify girls who are at risk of not completing school due to poverty. Without education, these girls face early marriage, or migrating to cities to work as child labourers, where they are too often exploited. As a current Camfed beneficiary from Zambia put it: "If you are not educated, you are nothing." Camfed has seen over the past 15 years some of our beneficiaries proceed to tertiary education and become lawyers or doctors. Without Camfed's intervention, these girls would not have been able to complete primary education.

For young women who do not go on to pursue such careers, Camfed continues to invest in their extended education and economic empowerment as small businesswomen running local enterprises, which provides them with the skills and confidence to fulfil their potential and the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty that currently plagues rural sub-Saharan Africa.

Recently asked by a reporter from the Financial Times about the difference that education has made to her life and those of her friends, Mary, a Camfed beneficiary in Tanzania, answered, "We tell each other that we are making history". Mary's answer captures the sense of hope that education has brought to the lives of many thousands of girls that Camfed has supported so far. For the MDGs to become a reality rather than just a broken promise, the rights -- and dreams -- of rural girls and women must remain at the forefront of policy planning and strategies. The education of girls and young women -- with its dividends of poverty alleviation, gender equality, HIV/AIDS reduction -- is the single most effective means by which so many of the problems blocking Africa's development can be overcome.Notes1. Millennium Development Goals Report 2007 (United Nations, 2007), 12; see also "Executive Summary", Dakar +7: Education for All in Africa 2007 (UNESCO/BREDA, 2007).
2. For a summary of these reports' findings, see B. Herz and G. Sperling, What Works in Girls' Education: Evidence and Policies from the Developing World (Council on Foreign Relations, 2004), 22-40.
3. This study by Over Mead (1998) is cited in Herz and Sperling, What Works in Girls' Education, 32.
4. "Children out of school measuring exclusion from primary education" (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2005), 17.
5. Table 5, State of the World's Children (UNICEF, 2007), 121.
6. See Gordon Brown, "The next global cause: free education for all", The Independent (3 December 2007).
7. Two thirds of newly-infected youth, aged 15-19, in sub-Saharan Africa are female. See Because I'm a Girl. The State of the World's Girls 2007 (Plan International, 2007), 17.
8. Tanzania in Figures 2006 (National Bureau of Statistics, United Republic of Tanzania, 2007), 31-33.