Worsening conflicts, poverty and gender discrimination in the Middle East and North Africa are driving 21 million children and young adolescents out of school, two United Nations agencies said on Wednesday.
One in four children are either not in school or are at risk of dropping out in a region that has otherwise made significant progress in attendance rates, according to a joint report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute of Statistics.
"At a time of such change and turmoil, this region simply cannot afford to let 21 million children fall by the wayside," said Maria Calivis, UNICEF's regional director in the Middle East and North Africa.
The region has recorded a 40 percent drop over the past decade in the number of out-of-school children.
But more than 12 million children and adolescents are not attending school, with an additional 6 million at risk of dropping out, said the report.
A further 3 million children are out of school in Syria and Iraq, where conflict has destroyed large parts of the education system, data from the report showed.
Save the Children said last month that a quarter of school buildings in Syria have been destroyed by the war, and many parents are too frightened to send their children to school.
The UN report said worsening violence in Syria and Iraq now threatens millions more of becoming a "lost generation" without education.
Across the region, child marriage, as well as a lack of female teachers and deep-rooted social attitudes are drastically reducing girls' chances of getting an education.
The report, which is part of the two agencies' Middle East and North Africa Out-of-School Children Initiative, urged governments to ramp up efforts and devise new policies to tackle school drop-outs and gender discrimination in education, among other things.
"We need targeted interventions to reach the families displaced by conflict, the girls forced to stay home and the children obliged to work," said Silvia Montoya, director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.