Amna Ameer Abbasi
Formal education is the process of training and acquiring knowledge from a structuralized institute operating through a well-defined curriculum. It is a right, not a privilege as backed up by article 26 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and not an entitlement limited to a particular social class or gender. However, the state of affairs of our country has determined it otherwise and this is precisely what is halting our socioeconomic and civil progress as a nation. Pakistan has been reported to be “among the world’s worst-performing countries in education,” at the 2015 Oslo Summit on Education and Development.
Education is a bare minimum right of every human regardless of their gender, social class, religion, caste, or creed but Pakistan has performed poorly to safeguard this basic human right for nearly 22.7 million children, both male, and female who are currently out of school. This statistic was provided by the then newly elected government in 2018 in its manifesto so with good reason, the people had high expectations from the government issuing them with enlightening yet startling statistics about its educational regress but regrettably, we have not witnessed a viable cure to this widespread national predicament.
Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan under the 18th Amendment obligates the state to provide free and compulsory education to children up to the secondary level between 5 to 16 years of age but I don’t see how reminiscing and nudging about these articles time and time again is doing us any favor. Although education is deemed compulsory by the government, nobody questions the alarming rates of children, especially girls, dropping out of school and there is no reinforcement by law whatsoever to ensure that the maximum number of girls stay in school and don’t drop out because of reasons to the likes of gender discrimination or the inability to afford education.
Understandably, progress on such a macro level cannot be achieved overnight but the stinging question remains: what exact strategy are we following to combat the social evil of illiteracy? The state of education is in matching perils for both boys and girls but it remains an undeniable reality that females in Pakistan have always been on the neglected end of the social spectrum. The biases and preferences towards the son of the family and his preference as the breadwinner lands him a superior position in the household, thus he is expected to attend school, obtain a degree and be rewarded a job to support his family. It’s an acutely pitiful state of affairs that the same parents who realize the call for their son’s education shun their daughters getting the same scholarship even though no logic determines girls can't fetch the same opportunities as their male counterparts and support the very same family.
Women account for 48.5% of Pakistan’s total population as of 2019 but their participation in the economy is not being sufficiently promoted, the primary factor being unequal access to literacy. These deeply rooted cultural prejudices against girls getting an education is a notion that sounds so archaic but it is the reality of 62% of primary-school-age girls in Pakistan who are supposed to be realizing their dreams in school but are forced into fieldwork, child marriages, menial domestic jobs exploiting their youth, and other underpaid jobs depriving them of the dignity that can only be acquired through literacy.
The International Labour Organization cites estimates that almost 13 percent of children aged 10 to 14 years are in employment, rising to 33 percent among children ages 15 to 17. Most of them being girls getting forced into servile operations like agricultural fieldwork, domestic helper jobs, or working in cottage industries. How can they ever be expected to continue their education while working these non-rewarding, exploitative jobs to earn less than the minimum wage for their families?
We have a bitter cocktail of unfortunate factors that facilitate such a regressive and hostile attitude towards girls' education. Fears of sexual harassment outside the house and the notion of girls carrying a family’s honor is a determinant in parent’s hesitation in sending their daughters to school especially those belonging to conservative groups. Another view is that there is no need for girls to attain education because it is proportional to getting a job later. Thus if the only role a girl has in her life is to be a housewife and a child rearer, then there is no need to waste any funds on her educational expenses and it seems more feasible to train her to become a domestic slave instead. This has a popularly acclaimed counter-argument as presented by Napoleon Bonaparte’s quote, ‘’Give me an educated mother, I shall promise you the birth of a civilized educated nation”. There is a dire need to understand that if we continue to instill the role of parenting to the mother alone then she must be educated to raise educated children herself but this in no way determines that a woman’s sole role or purpose in life is to only be a mother and let that toxic stereotyping stop her from getting an education.
There is also less prevalence of all-girls schools as compared to all-boys schools. In 2016 the government reported equal numbers of middle schools for boys and girls, but major disparities in the number of girls’ primary schools (66,000 girls’ schools out of 165,900 total) and secondary schools (13,400 girls’ schools out of 32,100 total). The disparities become even greater at the level of professional colleges and universities due to which girls are unable to get higher or even the minimum secondary education.
Another major setback is the lack of government educational institutes providing well-rounded free access to education. It would be arrogant to say that state-run schools offer a complete solution to the poverty problem because even if the education is free, sometimes the parents are asked to pay for associated costs of enrollment, stationery, books, and uniform. Some union councils have a very small number of schools with respect to the population and area. Due to the school being too distant from the house, many girls have to drop out early on. Consequently, Pakistan has witnessed inflation in the opening of unregulated private schools and madrassas with no state-approved curriculums or course plans. The teachers often have insufficient educational qualifications and undergo no training before joining such educational institutes so the girls, mostly belonging to working-class backgrounds, are unable to achieve any excellence in their educational pursuits which doesn't account for any economic success later in life. The problem is worsened in rural areas where even private schools are scarcer than hen’s teeth due to fewer profits they make the farther they move away from urban premises.
Oftentimes, the only education some females in Pakistan ever acquire is the one they were given at formal religious schools or madrassas. Estimates of the number of madrassas vary between 12,000 and 40,000. In some areas of Pakistan, they outnumber the public schools which is rather alarming because a balance of both modes of education is vital to instill even worldly and religious values in students. It is crucial to appreciate that merely religious education is not sufficient for our socioeconomic progress in such a pro-globalization world.
The decentralized structure of the Pakistani government means that each province in Pakistan has variable and arbitrary levels of educational opportunities that girls belonging to such provinces can get. There is no central authority exerting the same curriculum across each province thus each decision regarding course plans, their execution, classroom objectives, and terms and conditions of the examination is determined sub nationally at provincial levels.
With the literacy rate being the lowest in Balochistan at 55.5% out of which merely 25 percent of women have ever attended school as compared to 60 percent of men and even in Punjab where the literacy rate is highest at 64.7%, only 56 percent of women have ever attended school as compared to 74 percent of men. An education expert from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa expressed their concern: “If you have ten schools for boys, you have five for girls”.
With such gruesome statistics glaring right at our so-called progressive national incentives and threatening our progress, how can we ever ensure equal opportunities for children especially girls who have to face double the social stigma for something as basic as the right to education?
The female lack of access to education stems from the core problem of gender inequality. If we ever want to advance and enhance our standing as a 3rd world country, we must nip the problem in the bud, the problem being discrimination against women.
According to the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, Pakistan was ranked the second-worst country in the world regarding gender inequality. Women are the targets of gender-based violence, from domestic abuse, honor killings, sexual exploitation to institutional discrimination.
SDG 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals aims to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere and to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls in public and private spheres but according to official statistics, there are at least 11 rape cases reported in Pakistan every day with over 22,000 rape cases reported to police across the country in the last six years. In a country where the average woman fights to keep her fundamental dignity, we have a long way to go until each woman and every girl gets the autonomy and the right to self-determination she deserves. The appropriate step towards this cause is to confer educational reforms in the country at the grass-root level to guarantee every girl, regardless of her placement in the socio-economic hierarchy, religion, or race procures the compulsory education she deserves and that her right to education is safeguarded by the state by criminalizing any act that deprives her of the ability to continue her studies in a safe and progress-oriented environment.
As of 2017, only 2.9% of Pakistan’s GDP constitutes educational expenditures but more than good for nothing investments that deplete financial resources due to poor management and its corrupt managers, we need a thorough sweeping of educational policies and a reappraisal of the already established institutions. The curriculum in schools should be government authorized and strictly monitored to include gender-sensitive courses as well as a balanced variety of subjects to adhere to international standards of education. Private schools and madrassas teaching non-religious subjects should also be required to use the same government curriculum.
Also, there is an urgent need to promote educational awareness programs on the significance of girls' education especially in rural areas that are rampant with developmental regress. All schools should be required to run outreach programs administered by the provincial authorities. Parents and guardians who choose to not send their daughters to school even when educational and financial resources are available should be subjected to penalties as backed up by article 25-A under the 18th Amendment which states that, “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.”
The number of girls-only government-funded schools should be increased to a minimum of 35 per union council for a populated province like Punjab and if that is not an immediately attainable goal then a program for providing scholarships to private schools should be developed for girls living in areas not served by government schools. Free transport services should be dispensed to the already established schools that should provide the girls with a hassle-free movement to and fro from the school. Security plans should be developed to ensure girls don’t face any harassment within schools or on their travel routes.
Teacher training should guarantee not only quality education but also a secure environment for girls where they feel confident to move about and learn. The process of school enrollment and registration should be kept minimalistic and uncomplicated so parents, particularly uneducated ones aren’t overcome by confusion about redundant paperwork. Age restrictions should also be lifted so older girls don’t shy away from starting school if they couldn’t attend it when they were younger. Similarly, alternative forms of education should be introduced in the form of female-specific training, development, and counseling centers for girls and women who couldn’t continue their education due to lack of support and/or resources so that they can still learn skills and find secure jobs, thus empowering not only their families and themselves but also adding their share of contributions to the economy of Pakistan.
All forms of discrimination and differential treatment based on gender, race, religion, or economic standing should be banned. Early and forced marriages remain a primary hurdle in the education process of girls, particularly to ones belonging to rural vicinities. Albeit child and forced marriages are criminal acts by law, the federal and provincial governments should work closely to develop a national action plan to permanently put an end to such criminal acts of oppression against girls as aimed by UN Sustainable Development Goal 5.3.
Pakistan has a long way to go to abolish gender-based discrimination against girls but the best place to start is to implement educational reforms to ensure Pakistani girls receive the same opportunities to prosper and progress as their male counterparts because there is no doctrine in the world that determines girls have any less potential. Empowering girls through education is the most efficacious way to ensure the long-term economic and social prosperity and stability of Pakistan.