Pakistan has a very low primary- to-college retention rate: only one per cent of the children who enrol in school end up completing 12 years of education. The number of females who achieve this feat is even lower. It is unfortunate to see that the current education system and the socio-economic conditions are discriminatory towards females, even while our constitution guarantees equal access to all.
There are many factors which cause this high dropout rate: Poor quality of education, absence of basic facilities such as drinking water, dearth of quality teachers particularly in science, math and English, outdated textbooks and inefficient examinations, among other reasons.
However, special attention must be given to the question of why there are fewer girls in schools. Research has suggested that there is a direct relationship between female enrolment, particularly in rural areas, and poverty levels. Poor families require their children to bring in supplementary income or help at home. While government schools provide free education in many districts, there are many other costs associated with education — such as those of textbooks and uniforms — that the families must bear. Sending a child to school not only means that the child will no longer bring in additional income, but also that families will have to pay for certain expenses. This makes education very unattractive. If a household decides that it can only afford to send one child to school, that child will be a boy.
Certain mindsets make the lives of girls quite difficult. Young women face a disproportionate burden of housework and extended family obligations. They are expected to get married early and have repeated pregnancies at an early age, due to which they suffer from poor health. Particularly in rural areas, feudalism, tribalism and patriarchy make the overall environment, both within the household and outside, hostile and violent towards women.
Girls in rural areas face additional constraints. In the more rural and remote communities, there is greater demand for segregation. Given that mobility of teachers is a major issue everywhere, fewer qualified female teachers are available. Many schools do not have boundary walls which are of great importance for parents of girls. In a country where girls’ schools are blown or become declared targets, very few parents will send their daughters to a school without adequate security.
Even in urban areas, girls are less likely to go to school beyond the primary level because of the high fees of private schools, fewer job opportunities and the irrelevancy of the curriculum to their lives. Parents are unlikely to invest in a girl's education if the opportunities available to their daughters do not offset the costs.
Nonetheless, some positive developments give hope that we may be able to improve female education. One such example is the provision of free books and a middle school stipend for girls in 15 of the poorest districts of Punjab. This model should be expanded.
In order to ensure that reform does happen, all gaps in gender focus at the policy level should be removed. Policymakers have not realised that poor quality of education affects girls the most. The issue of mobility, especially in rural areas, for female students and teachers results in non-segregated schools, which restricts enrolment. Few policies address issues of security and gender-based violence, negative cultural practices, a disempowering legal status and political pressures; these are all areas in which women are most vulnerable.
While broad-based educational reforms must be carried out, special focus has to be given to pertinent issues related to ensuring that the nation's daughters are not denied education. The first responsibility in this regard is on the shoulders of the parliamentarians who must draft legislation to end violence against women.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2011.