UNITED NATIONS — With the 2015 U.N. target for ensuring universal primary education fast approaching, the U.N. education agency warned Tuesday that 67 million children are not attending school, including 28 million caught in armed conflicts.
UNESCO's 2011 Global Monitoring Report concluded that the world is not on track to achieve the goal set by world leaders at a U.N. summit in 2000 "by a wide margin," despite progress in many areas.
From 1999 to 2008, UNESCO said an additional 52 million children enrolled in primary school – but it said the number of children out school is falling too slowly, to 67 million in 2008.
"If current trends continue," the report warned, "there could be more children out of school in 2015 than there are today."
It singled out "the hidden crisis" of youngsters caught in armed conflict as one key reason.
Of the total number of primary school age children who are not enrolled in school, 42 percent – around 28 million – live in poor countries affected by conflict, the report said.
"Children and schools today are on the front line of armed conflicts, with classrooms, teachers and pupils seen as legitimate targets," the UNESCO report said.
In Afghanistan, at least 613 attacks on schools were recorded in 2009, up from 347 in 2008, the report said. Insurgents in Pakistan have made numerous attacks on girls schools including one in which 95 girls were injured, it said.
In North Yemen, 220 schools were destroyed, damaged or looted during fighting in 2009 and 2010, the report said. And in Gaza, Israeli attacks in 2008 and 2009 left 350 children dead, 1,815 injured and 280 schools damaged, it said.
Children are also being used as soldiers in 24 countries including Congo, Chad, the Central African Republic, Myanmar and Sudan, the report said.
UNESCO cited evidence in reports from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that rape and sexual violence are widely used as a weapon of war in many countries including Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo and Sudan.
"Many victims are young girls," the report said, citing Congo where one-third of rapes involve children and 13 percent are against children under the age of 10.
UNESCO warned that armed conflict is also diverting public funds from education into military spending.
The report identified 21 of the world's poorest developing countries that spend more on the military than on education.
"With some of the world's worst education indicators, Chad spends four times as much on arms as on primary schools, and Pakistan spends seven times as much," the report said.
If countries devoting more to military budgets than to primary education were to cut military spending by just 10 percent, "they could put a total of 9.5 million additional children in school – equivalent to a 40 percent reduction in their combined out-of-school population," it said.
According to UNESCO, overall aid to basic education has doubled since 2002 to US$4.7 billion, but falls far short of the $16 billion required to help low-income countries.
The report calls for tougher action against human rights violations to ensure all youngsters get a primary school education, an overhaul of global aid priorities, and greater attention to the ways education failures can increase the risk of conflict.