Shalina is a Bangladeshi girl who is about to finish school. But for Shalina, there will be no pre-exam jitters, no university applications, no diplomas, no career plans. There will not even be a graduation. Shalina is 13, and she is about to join 73 million school-age girls around the world who are not in school.

For Shalina’s parents, and millions of other parents like them, educating a daughter is a waste of time and money. They married off her older sister at age 15, having decided to use their scarce resources for their son’s education. Shalina used to worry about lessons and tests, but she worries much more about having to get married and bear children while still a child herself. She used to dream about being a doctor, but now faces a life of cleaning houses during the day and tutoring younger children at night. She used to be a happy girl, but now writes of wishing she were a boy.

Shalina and her 73 million peers are denied not only something many of us take for granted; they are denied a fundamental human right spelled out in international instruments their governments have signed on to, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child: the right to education.

It is often said that education empowers girls by building up their confidence and enabling them to make informed decisions about their lives. For readers of this article, that statement may seem to be about university degrees, income levels or career fulfillment. But for most of the world’s girls, it is about not being forced into a marriage while still in your teens because you have no other choice; about managing pregnancies so that they do not threaten your health, your life or your livelihood; about seeking and obtaining medical care for your children and yourself when you need it; about child care and nutrition; about ensuring that your children attend at least primary school.

It is about being able to earn an income when women before you earned none; about knowing and enjoying rights that women before you never knew they had; about educating your children to do the same, and their children after them. It is about bringing to a close a previously never-ending spiral of poverty and powerlessness.

Education is, quite simply, an investment that yields a higher profit than any other. It is what makes possible the development of entire communities, countries and continents. It is the most effective form of defense spending there is.

So why are so many millions of girls denied it? In many societies, women are systematically marginalized; and yet, when catastrophe strikes — whether it be in the form of illness, conflict or hardship — they bear the biggest burden. Nothing illustrates this more amply than the impact of HIV/AIDS. Girls are most likely to care for a sick family member and help manage the household. Kept from school, they do not learn about how to protect themselves against the virus. Deprived of an education, they risk being forced into early sexual relations with older men or earning a living as prostitutes, and thereby becoming infected.

If we are to change this cruel and unjust state of affairs, we need to do more than build new classrooms. We need to remove the constraints that lead parents to keep their daughters out of school. And once girls are in school, we must work to ensure that school prepares them for life, by developing curricula, textbooks and teaching attitudes that emphasize the life skills they will need. But the first step is for societies to recognize that educating girls is not an option; it is a necessity.

In the Middle East, a few countries have already eliminated the gender gap in primary schooling. Others in the region are recognizing the need to educate girls, if only to ensure they have a better-trained labor force.

Some African countries, too, have made progress in reducing gender bias. Malawi has cut the direct costs of schooling by eliminating school fees and abolishing compulsory uniforms. Guinea has reduced the domestic burdens of girls, by digging wells and providing mechanical mills. It has introduced legislation that makes it illegal to force girls to marry before they have completed nine years of schooling.

These are welcome examples. But they are not nearly enough. The world needs a coordinated strategy on the scale of the challenge. We need all those with the power to change things to come together in an alliance for girls’ education: governments, voluntary progressive groups and above all, local communities, schools and families. That is why this spring, the United Nations is launching a new global initiative to educate girls.

Already, in the 12th century, the Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd declared that “a society which enslaves its women is a society doomed to decay.” Nine hundred years later, let us prove that a society that empowers its women is a society sure to succeed.

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