Fourteen-year-old Zeba wakes early in the morning with her younger siblings Saira and Hina. The girls get dressed, comb their hair and leave their home at 7.30 am; they are not headed to their school, but to help their mother who works as a maid at several houses in the capital.
“There is a girls’ school here in Bhara Kahu village, but our parents believe that girls should not be sent to school, but should be trained to do household chores,” Zeba said. “We work from 7.30 am until 6 pm, and we eat roti with leftover curry during this time.”
Their village is located on the northeastern outskirts of Islamabad, not too far from Parliament House and Prime Minster Secretariat. Zeba’s mother is the sole bread-winner in the family as her father is a daily wage labourer and it has been many days since his last job. “We want to go to school, we want to drink milk and eat an egg in the morning and we want to play with our friends,” Zeba says. Education, health and nutrition – the right to access these fundamentals is denied to millions of girls in Pakistan like Zeba, Saira and Hina, largely due to poverty and a lack of awareness.
“In a conservative society like Pakistan a girl usually has to face discrimination right from the moment her family learns that a mother-to-be is pregnant with a baby girl,” said Country Representative Rutgers World Population Foundation (WPF) Qadeer Baig as Pakistan marks the International Day of the Girl Child, commemorated annually by the United Nations on October 11. The theme for 2014 is focuses on empowering adolescent girls in order to end the gender-based violence.
“Violence against children remains culturally entrenched as children in Pakistan undergo physical violence, sexual abuse, trafficking and acid attacks,” reported Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc) in 2013. “Girls in Pakistan aged 14 to 25 years are the most likely target of acid attacks and in 2013 a total of 150 acid attacks against women were reported around the country.” The report adds that there were 3,861 cases of child sexual abuse reported from different parts of the country in 2012.
While civil society activists and educationists came together on Saturday to commemorate International Day of the Girl Child, they paid tribute to Malala and also acknowledged that while Pakistan is honoured by her win, the country still has many hurdles to overcome in the education of its women.
“As we celebrate the honour bestowed on Malala and on Pakistan, we are humbled by the dismal figures of female literacy and school enrolment in our country. A single voice, however strong, is not sufficient to effectively challenge the misogynist practices that plague our society. Instead, we need a concerted and joint effort across political lines, religious divides and civil society to bring an end to the brutal denial of education to women,” said Member National Assembly (MNA) Shaista Pervez Malik.
Pakistan has emerged as 113th of 120 countries in a global literacy ranking. The rate of female literacy among young women is 61 per cent, as compared with 79 per cent for males of the same age. Moreover, more than 40 per cent of girls who drop out of schools do not re-enroll. In many rural areas, as schools are located at a distance, families remain hesitant to allow their girls to commute. Some cannot afford the cost of the commute.
In Balochistan, 66 per cent of children between the ages of 5 to 16 do not attend school, with girls far outnumbering boys in this regard, according to nonprofit organisation Alif Ailaan. “At least 60 percent female children are out of schools while male children are 34 percent who are not going to schools,” said Sajid Hussain Changezi, Manager Alif Ailaan, at a press conference in Quetta on Saturday. “Only 23 per cent of girls in the province have ever attended school, as compared with 61 per cent of boys,” he added. At least 35 per cent girls are enrolled at primary schools in Balochistan and merely nine per cent could make to middle school, while four percent to high schools.
(WITH INPUT FROM SHEZAD BALOCH, HASSAN NAQVI, SEHRISH WASIF, HIDAYAT KHAN AND SHAHZAD ANWAR)
Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2014.