Byline: Paul Groves
Women can change the world - in the era of Spice Girl-inspired girl power, this is no great news flash. And yet it should be, because it's not just about hot pants and pop songs.
Around the world women can make a massive impact on the quality of their own lives and the lives of people around them.
In poor countries women hold the key to relieving hunger, improving health and changing attitudes that exacerbate suffering. All they need is the chance to use it - and the best chance a woman can get is through education.
Yet current figures show that there are 66 million girls out of school worldwide. In education, as in other areas, being born with female chromosomes reduces your life chances from the outset.
A basic education gives a woman the power to alter the world around her.
Simply being able to read, means a woman can understand the instructions on the back of a packet of seeds and plant the crop that will feed her family. She can read the label on a bottle of pills and administer the drugs that will save her child's life. She can know what it says on the box of condoms and use them to protect herself from infection and unwanted pregnancy.
But today, of the 860 million people in the world who can't read or write, two-thirds are women.
An education also means broader horizons and the chance to participate in building the future. Taught about how diseases are spread, women in poor countries can take part in grass roots prevention - an essential part of the global battle against devastating epidemics like Aids and tuberculosis.
Rebecca is 12. She has had the chance to go to school in Malawi and says: 'I'm not scared about getting Aids now because we are taught about HIV at school.'
Educated about their place in the world and the position of their country on the international stage, women can choose to get involved and truly become global citizens. Safia from Pakistan explains her outlook changed when she went to school: 'A new world was opening out for me and I was quite excited. Suddenly I did not feel so hopeless.'
At the UN millennium summit, world leaders promised to get as many girls as boys into school by 2005. Yet at the current rate of progress 67 countries will miss the target. This is despite continually emerging evidence of the direct benefits to be gained by women going to school.
Education is clearly a route to escape from poverty and suffering. A recent Oxfam report revealed that rural women in Zambia with no education are twice as likely to be living in extreme poverty as those who have benefited from between eight and 12 years of education. And in Niger, with the world's highest infant mortality rate, maternal primary education improves survival 60 per cent.
So what is stopping girls getting into school and benefiting from an education? Some of the problems are financial. Low levels of public spending often mean that poor people have to pay to send their children to school - and many can't.
When costs are lowered, the children flood in. In Uganda, when school fees were removed, enrolment rose by more than two million.
Attitudes and cultural stereotypes in developing countries often form a barrier to girls' education as well.
Taklitin Walet Ferati, who works to promote education in the Gao region of Northern Mali, explains one of the common impediments. …