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'Africa Rising'? Not really, unless we invest more in girls

By Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia Special to CNN | 6/16/2014, 10:28 a.m.
hat factor has the power to transform individual lives, communities, nations and the world?
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia, briefs correspondents on the latest developments in her country, following her address to the 61st session of the General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters in New York. (Erin Siegal/UN Photo)

Editor's note: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

What factor has the power to transform individual lives, communities, nations and the world?

The answer to this complex question is a simple one: education. While it is widely accepted that there is no one solution to lift the millions across our globe out of poverty, it is also equally accepted that a key cornerstone of addressing some of the world's most pressing challenges is through providing a quality education to all children, especially girls.

Despite increasing numbers attending school in recent years, 126 million children remain out of primary school and lower secondary school around the world. Some 65 million of these children are girls.

The highest rate of girls not in school is across the African continent, where in sub-Saharan Africa nearly four out of five poor rural girls are not completing primary school. There are an estimated 250 million children worldwide of primary school age who can't read, write or do basic math -- more than half of whom have completed four years of schooling.

It is unacceptable that in 2014 -- less than a year away from the deadline the international community agreed to get all children into school -- that 30 million girls in Africa are denied their basic human right to a quality education. Ensuring that every child goes to school, stays in school and learns something of value while there will require firm commitments and action by governments to invest in education and prioritize the education of its girls.

Africa's economy has grown at more than 5 percent annually over the past decade -- some of the highest economic growth in the world -- leading many to use the phrase of "Africa Rising" when describing its countries. However, a country's economic growth does not always lead to development or improvement for its poorest citizens. To truly rise as a nation by building an equitable, sustainable and peaceful society, governments must ensure that spending on education is prioritized and used well.

According to recent research, the estimated economic gain from achieving universal primary education exceeds the estimated increase in public spending required to achieve it. One extra year of schooling can increase an individual's earnings by 10 percent. Girls who complete a primary education are likely to increase their earnings by 5 to 15 percent over their lifetimes.

Each additional year of schooling could raise average annual gross domestic product growth by 0.37 percent. If all women had a primary education, child marriages and child mortality could fall by a sixth, and maternal deaths by two-thirds. Investing in girls' education could boost sub-Saharan Africa's agricultural output by up to 25 percent.

Some countries lose more than $1 billion a year by failing to educate girls to the same level as boys. Without education, how can a country's future citizens take part in growing their economy and reap benefits? Without education how can a country grow?