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Girls Move to Head of the Class in Brazil
By Mario Osava, Inter Press Service
  RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 24 (IPS) - Brazil has some excellent results to present before the World Education Forum, in April, especially when it comes to female education over the last decade. Girls have raced ahead of boys in school attendance and literacy rates.
  Until the late 1980s, boys stayed longer in school - a situation that reversed in the 1990-1996 period. The average time spent in school by female students grew from 4.9 to six years, while males saw a moderate increase from 5.1 to 5.7 years.
  Illiteracy, which tends to be disproportionately higher among > women, runs at 9.4 percent among Brazilian women between 30 and > 39 years, but drops to 4 percent for the 15 to 19 age group. For > men in the same age groups, the rates are 11 percent and 7.9 > percent, respectively.

  The Ministry of Education explains that the entry of women in the labour market and the widespread wage discrimination they face has pushed women to study harder. In addition, child labour hurts boys more than girls as young males are more likely to engage in economic activities that impede school attendance.

  Increasing school attendance ''is permitting women to gradually but continuously reduce gender-based salary differences and occupy important posts in work and politics,'' observes Maria Helena Guimaraes de Castro, president of Brazil's National Education Research Institute.
  This is an important phenomenon because more than one third of Brazilian families are headed by women, added Guimaraes de Castro, who is co-ordinating her country's preparations for the World Forum in Dakar, from April 26 to 28.
  The report Brazil will present there also underscores the near universal-access to basic education, reflecting the nation's compliance with the goal of ''Education for All'' adopted by the 1990 World Conference in Jomtien, Thailand.
  Last year in Brazil, 95.4 percent of the child population aged seven to 14 attended school -- compared to 86.1 percent in 1991 -- surpassing the goal of 94 percent the government set for 2003. But a million children are still out of the educational system.
  A major reduction in illiteracy among the population over age 15, from 20.1 percent in 1991 to 13.8 percent in 1998, is another positive result, even if it does not quite meet the goal of reducing the 1991 level by half.
  The advances are ''extraordinary'' and are the result of government-led policies, such as the 'All Children in School' programme and increased teacher salaries in poverty-stricken areas, said Dulce Borges, education co-ordinator of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Brazil.
  ''In five years Brazil would be able to achieve the level of industrialised countries,'' ventured the UNESCO official, but she acknowledged obstacles such as the high rate of grade repetition among children and the lack of attention to illiterate adolescents and adults.
  The prioritisation of the child, the reform of the educational system and other initiatives -- such as scholarships that allow low-income families to keep their children in school -- ''are on the right track,'' and will eventually allow the nation to attend to its other needs, said Borges.
  ''Brazil is among the most rapidly advancing countries, even > more than Argentina'' in expanding school attendance and > implementing measures to improve educational quality, agreed Argentina's Education Minister Juan Jos Llach, during a visit last month.
  Brazil is part of the E-9, the nine countries that comprise 70 percent of the world's illiterate people and half the global population. The E-9 met early last month in Recife, in Brazil's northeast, to evaluate each nation's educational performance and to discuss their common goals.
  Though each of the nine suffers high illiteracy rates, their situations are quite different. Rates in Brazil, China, Indonesia and Mexico range between 10 and 20 percent, while Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Nigeria and Pakistan report rates higher than 40 percent.
  Because of these major differences, Brazil will propose dissolving the E-9, announced Guimaraes de Castro, though she acknowledged that the group has great influence over educational policies implemented within the member countries.
  ''Each country must define its own priorities because the problems are very diverse. In Brazil, for example, the gender differences in educational indicators do not reach the extremes of Egypt, India or Pakistan,'' she said. But Brazil's authorities admit they have much to do. Grade repetition means students average 11 years to finish an eight-year primary school education.
  The nation spends 4.8 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on education, a level similar to industrialised countries, but it is not equally distributed and ultimately contributes to greater social inequalities.
  Brazil's annual expenditure per primary school student is 12.8 times less than for its university students, compared to a mere three-fold difference in the United States and nearly on-par with expenditures in other industrialised countries.
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