KOUTAGBA, Benin — For as long as anyone could remember, the girls of this village had been forbidden to go to school. They were to be educated instead by the local voodoo priest, in a secret rite of passage not to be spoken about to anyone. When they finished, they were to be married. They and their children were to forever enjoy the protection of the voodoo priest.
That was until six years ago, when, with prodding from local government and United Nations officials, an extraordinary deal was struck. Every family in Koutagba could send one girl to school, the priest agreed, so long as it also sent another to him.
The mothers of the village fell on their knees, laid bottles of home-brew at his feet and prayed. Two years ago, two Koutagba girls finished primary school. Today, 8 of the 27 pupils in fifth grade are girls. So is nearly half of the first grade.
The story of this tiny, remote hamlet in the heart of West Africa offers a metaphor for the challenges facing girls' education on the continent.
In spite of the steady progress in increasing school enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa, only 59 percent of all children attended primary school from 1996 to 2002, the lowest percentage of any region in the world, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations Children's Fund, or Unicef.
For girls, because of a mix of traditional mores, crippling poverty and a lack of international aid for education, the numbers are even lower. Only 57 percent of girls were enrolled during the same period — again, by far the lowest rate worldwide, according to the Unicef report. (In South Asia, by comparison, girls' enrollment reached 71 percent during the same period, and in the Middle East and North Africa 75 percent.)
Perhaps most alarming of all, the number of girls out of school in sub-Saharan Africa rose over the last decade, to 24 million in 2002 from 20 million in 1990, according to the Unicef report. The costs of leaving girls out of school have already proved to be high, researchers say. Uneducated girls are more prone to live in poverty as adults, die in childbirth, contract H.I.V. and raise children who, in turn, are likely to be poor and in ill health.
A report released by Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in November painted an equally bleak picture, shining a light on the gender gap in countries like this one. While girls' enrollment in Benin increased by 9 percent over five years, the gap between boys and girls remains among the highest anywhere.
The latest reports stand in the face of recent pledges made by world leaders. Reaching gender parity by 2005 was among the principal development goals at the United Nations Millennium Summit meeting three years ago, along with reducing infant mortality and hunger. Reaching the education target in sub-Saharan Africa now appears unlikely, if not impossible.
"It would be criminal to fail on that goal," Carol Bellamy, executive director of Unicef, said in a telephone interview. "We believe that girls' education may be the single most important investment you can make to propel not only education for all, but several of the millennium development goals."
Ms. Bellamy singled out school fees, which were a fixture of World Bank-led economic reform packages for the last decade, as the largest obstacle to girls' education. In societies where girls are considered unworthy of the investment, many poor parents pay for their sons, not their daughters, to go to school. Girls are put to work, helping their mothers fetch water and firewood, caring for younger siblings, sweeping and cooking. Persuading mothers to send daughters to school is often a formidable practical challenge. In some places, nurseries have been set up to relieve young girls of baby-sitting chores; in others, wells have been installed close to schools to save the girls from long walks.
Education specialists also point a finger at donor countries. Overall development aid has shrunk, and financing for education has fallen. Even a much-lauded education program begun by the World Bank two years ago, the Fast Track Initiative, remains woefully underfinanced.
That, advocates argue, has hurt ostensibly well-meaning nations. Niger, for instance, locked in the Sahara and among the world's poorest countries, drafted an ambitious $96 million proposal to establish free primary education. But the country has received barely half the aid it needs, according to a recent study by the Global Campaign for Education, a coalition of development groups. Only 24 percent of girls and 36 percent of boys now attend school.
Many other factors conspire against girls' education as well, most notably the practice of marrying off girls as soon as they reach adolescence. In West and Central Africa, war has shuttered many schools. Across the continent, AIDS has robbed communities of breadwinners, leaving untold numbers of children to care for their families.
In the latest Unicef report, countries in West and Central Africa scored lowest in the gender parity index, a ratio of girls to boys enrolled in school. In Benin and Niger, for instance, the ratio was just under 0.70, compared to nearly full parity, or 1.00 on the index, in Iran and Bangladesh. Beyond sub-Saharan Africa, only Pakistan hovered close to the bottom, with a gender parity index below 0.70.
The turnaround for Koutagba in Benin came in April 1997, with the arrival of a strange apparition. Riding up the narrow dirt road on a scooter came Regina Guedou, a woman with a college degree. She came to tell villagers about how they could profit from sending their daughters to school. At first, Ms. Guedou recalled, the women of the village did not even speak to her.
Ms. Guedou was a liaison between the local government, the villagers and Unicef. Slowly, she got the villagers' attention. The girls would learn to read a thermometer and be able to figure out if a baby had a fever, she told them. They could help their mothers compute the costs of buying and selling their peanuts at the market. She told them their girls could one day ride a scooter all the way to the nearest small town.
She finally won their trust by offering a Unicef-underwritten loan for $700, a huge amount in this country.
The women were to use the money to buy food from the nearest small town, and to bring it back to sell. In exchange, the mothers agreed to send a daughter to school.
The voodoo priest, Mamassa Babalakoun, was apparently convinced of the merits as well. His youngest daughter is now in the fifth grade.
The priest was not available to speak to a visiting journalist on a recent day. But his representatives spoke on his behalf, making it plain that while they believed that girls' education could one day profit their community, they were worried that tradition — and in turn, their own influence over the affairs of the village — would be overwhelmed.
"The fetish existed before the school," said one, who called himself the priest's spokesman. "Each one has to respect the other."
Ms. Guedou was there, speaking to the representatives with shoes off, hands behind her back, bowing ever so slightly between sentences. Tact is of the essence in such communications.
The priest's representatives added that girls who were educated could become government ministers and doctors. They could help care for their parents.
A group of village men sat on a log in the shade and listened intently. One's T-shirt bore the image of Tupac Shakur; another's Osama bin Laden; a third, an American slogan against drug abuse.
Behind the priest's compound lived an illiterate woman named Egbin Setati, quietly smashing tradition. Neither of her two daughters, ages 9 and 7, were going to go to the priest. They were both in school.