Poverty, gender discrimination and violence are keeping more than 12 million children in the Middle East out of school, despite efforts to expand education, the UN children's agency warned Wednesday.
An additional three million children in Syria and Iraq have been forced out of school by conflict, UNICEF said in a new report.
The joint report by UNICEF and UN cultural agency UNESCO's Institute for Statistics said the rates of out-of-school children in the region had been declining, "often by as much as half."
"But in recent years, progress has stalled," it said, with 4.3 million primary-aged children and 2.9 million lower secondary-aged children out of school.
An additional 5.1 million children are not receiving pre-primary school education, bringing the total number of the region's children out of school to 12.3 million, the report said.
That figure represents around 15 percent of the children in the Middle East who should be receiving pre-primary, primary or secondary education.
Yemen had the worst rate of pre-primary school age children receiving an education, with only six percent of them in school.
Djibouti and Sudan had the worst rates for secondary school-age children, followed by Iran and Morocco.
- 'Girls are undervalued' -
The report said a study of nine countries in the region revealed a range of reasons why children were out of school, including poverty.
In many cases, families could not afford costs associated with schooling, including books and uniforms, or the loss of income from a child who could be put to work.
"Children from poor, disadvantaged families are most likely to be excluded from schooling, even though they have the most to gain," Maria Calivis, UNICEF's regional director, said at the report's launch in Beirut on Wednesday.
Gender discrimination also remains a factor.
"Girls are undervalued and, since they are not expected to work, their families see no need for them to learn," the report says, adding that early marriage is also an issue in most countries in the region.
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"It's the poor, rural girls who are the most disadvantaged," said UNICEF's Dina Craissati.
Elsewhere, violence is a problem -- either inside schools, or in conflict zones like Syria and Iraq, where millions of children no longer have access to education and schools have been caught up in violence.
"I used to go to school, before the soldiers came," one child said in a video produced by UNICEF.
The report said keeping children in school after enrolment was a key problem, with high drop-out rates at most levels in many countries in the region.
- 'What children want' -
It proposes three main recommendations, including a focus on early childhood development (ECD), where the disparity between wealthy and poor children is most stark in the region.
"Levelling the playing field in terms of equal access to ECD is a matter of urgency," it said.
It also urges a cross-sector approach to helping children enter school, pointing out that factors from transport to health can affect whether a child is enrolled or not.
The report suggests a focus on "retention," to ensure that enrolled children are not pushed out of education because of factors like corporal punishment or falling behind peers.
UNICEF representatives at the report's launch urged regional governments to increase their education budgets and invest more wisely in schools.
But they recognised that widespread violence in Syria and Iraq, and the developing conflicts in Yemen and Libya, would present serious challenges to improving education in these countries.
"There have been three million children forced out of school in Iraq and Syria, and we are expecting even more from the coming crises in Yemen and Libya," Craissati said.
The report called for "sufficient funding for education in emergencies, and national governments in the region should adopt flexible approaches for accommodating the education needs of conflict-affected children."
"This is what the children want, this is what parents what," UNICEF's Calivis said.