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Futures lost to the virus

Many girls in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have been forced away from education during the Covid-19 pandemic

By Asad Zia |
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PUBLISHED March 06, 2022

For almost two weeks last summer, Saliha and Sabira Rehman watched their father fight Covid-19 in a hospital in their hometown in Mardan District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. At the time, the pandemic was at its peak in Pakistan, and the girls stood by helplessly as their father, Ghan Rehmani, struggled to overcome his symptoms. He quietly succumbed to the disease at the end of May.

Rehman was a security guard in a private school near Qazi Abad, his village in Mardan. He was the sole breadwinner of his family, and funded education for his two daughters – both 12th-grade students in the Government Girls Degree College in Sawaldher. -- and the treatment of his mentally ill son. After the death of their father, the Rehman sisters have had to decide whether to abandon their education to help their family survive.

Many young people in Pakistan are already precariously positioned to pursue an education. Families

around the country struggle to afford school fees, and fluctuations in income or temporary loss of employment can be enough to cut a child’s education short. The ongoing pandemic has now become part of the long list of things that are keeping Pakistan’s children out of school, as families struggle to cope with the loss of a parent.

Girls are often the first to lose out if parents can’t afford school fees. When their father died, the Rehman sisters conferred together about who would stay in school and who would quit to help support the family. At first, they both agreed to leave their college but later decided Sabira would continue her education and Saliha would leave to start working. “It was really a very difficult decision for me to say goodbye to the college,” Saliha told The Express Tribune. “But there was no other way to fulfill the need of daily home expenses, [my] brother medications, and [my] sister's education.”

Saliha, 22, is the second oldest child of her family’s four children. Her 25-year-old brother is mentally disabled and her young brother is only eight. Saliha wanted to take her father’s position as a security guard but she knew Pashtun culture would not allow for a woman to do this job. Instead, she sought a job at the same school and was hired to teach first- and second-year students for Rs. 10,000 per month.

The change hasn’t been easy for Saliha, who dreamed to get higher education so she could take the CSS exam to work in the government. Still, she said she is willing to make the sacrifice so her sister can get a higher education, and so she can take care of her older brother who needs constant support. Even with her new job, Saliha said her family can only afford to eat once a day. They are struggling to afford medicine for her brother and other necessary things for their home.

Sabira said she misses her sister every day at college. “We are not just sisters but also good friends,” she told The Express Tribune. “It is very difficult for me to go to college without her.” Her hands shook as she spoke and her eyes welled with tears behind her veil when she talked about how challenging it has been to adapt without her while her family continues to struggle. She declined to be photographed but asked for help from whoever can provide it.

Over the phone, Bib Aiman, 22, Saliha’s former class fellow, said she also misses her friend at school. She considers Saliha to have been one of the most talented students in the class. She admires her friend for the sacrifice she has made for her family and to be able to afford to pay for her sister’s fees for the semester.

Girls out of school

Saliha and Sabira are not alone in their struggle – the Covid-19 pandemic has hurt girls’ education around Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. During a provincial assembly meeting in November 2021, Sharam Khan Tarakai, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Elementary and Secondary Education Minister, said of the 71 government schools that were closed in 2020 because of the pandemic, 47 were girls’ schools. Of these girls’ schools that closed, 45 were primary schools and two were middle schools in Peshawar.

A senior officer at the Elementary and Secondary Education Ministry, who asked to remain anonymous, said thousands of children, both male and female, have dropped out of school during the pandemic. Rozeena Bibi, 18, and her sister Mehik, 15, from Pakha Gulam, Peshawar, have not returned to school after the government closed their school because of the pandemic in 2020. Both girls were students at the Government High School in Pakha Ghulam, Peshawar. Although classes have resumed since then, Rozeen said her parents have not allowed the sisters to return to school.

Rozeen and Mehik’s father, Meer Afzal Khan, is a shopkeeper in Pakha Ghulam. His business suffered during the pandemic, and he has struggled to afford daily expenditures in addition to his children’s school fees. Although she is sad to not return to school, Rozeen said she understands her father’s difficult position. “Yes, we want to keep continuing our education, but my father cannot afford our vehicle monthly fare and admission fee and other expenses,” she said.

Rozeen said many other girls from her college also left school during the pandemic and are now working at home along with their mothers. She implored the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to support families in need so they can continue to educate their children.

In March 2020, all educational institutes in Pakistan were closed and examinations were canceled due to the pandemic. According to a report published by the Malala Fund and Education Champions shortly after, the Covid-19 pandemic has had dire effects on girls’ access to education around Pakistan. The report said the pandemic has severely impacted household finances across all four provinces, where most communities lack government support. According to the report, 82 percent of girls and 79 percent of boys intended to return to schools when they reopened, but the real numbers have not been nearly that high.

Girls from marginalised communities or those from poorer areas have been particularly hard hit and have faced the greatest challenges when it comes to returning to school. The report said the continued economic crisis the pandemic has wrought has the potential to prevent more girls from completing their education.

Shehnaz Bibi, a student at Begum Naseem Wali Khan Girl College in Mardan, also stopped her education due to the financial situation of her family. Her father and brother run a local hotel, and during the height of the pandemic, both stopped working at the hotel and returned home. He parents have not barred her from going to college, but because of her family’s financial struggles, she does not feel right having them pay for her college fees. Her father can’t afford tuition for even one semester at the moment. Shehnaz said there are dozens of girls from her class who haven’t returned to school because their families are in the same position. She also requested the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to help poor families so their daughters can get an education.

Qamar Naseem, the program coordinator of Blue Veins and chair of the Provincial Alliance to End Early Child and Forced Marriages, said he has also seen the extra challenges girls from low-income houses and those from rural areas are facing. He said this puts them at greater risk for things like child marriage, teenage or early pregnancy, and gender-based violence.

Naseem worries that the education emergency caused by the pandemic could roll back years of progress for gender equality in education in KP. With the sharp increase in dropout rates for girls in the province, he demands the federal and provincial governments recognize the unique effects of Covid-19 on girls’ education and address them accordingly. He said he hopes to see interventions after the pandemic that are equitable, gender transformative, and protective of human rights.

Back in Mardan, Saliha is trying to make the most out of her situation after having to drop out of school. She enjoys the engagement of her students and tries to emphasize to them the importance of education. As a teacher, she hopes to play a role in shaping the future generations of students, even if she is no longer in their ranks.