The status of female education in Pakistan is interlinked with the general scenario of education in the country – where 24 million children are out of schools. For those children who are enrolled at schools, the quality of learning is far from satisfactory.
In addition, the transition rate from primary schools to the secondary level and then to higher education is also alarmingly low – especially for girls. Research studies, academic reports, policy papers, government statistics, situation analyses and project reports issued by NGOs confirm the general perception about the inadequacies within the education system.
We have sufficient knowledge about the issues affecting the different dimensions of educational services. These facets include the curriculum and textbooks; the training, selection and deployment of teachers; teaching and learning environments at schools and within classrooms; educational management and governance; and the financing of education in terms of both budget allocations and efficiency in spending.
A deeper analysis also suggests that all segments of the student population are not uniformly affected by the shortfalls of the education system – especially in the public sector education. Geographically, students in the rural areas of Punjab and Sindh as well as the remote, scattered and mountainous areas of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir are adversely affected by these trends. Similarly, various minority groups, people who are disabled and girls face additional issues that stem from social attitudes, preferences and stereotyping. As a result, these groups are marginalised.
While a series of challenges and issues persist in the existing system, a significant knowledge base about structural complexities, social influences and systemic underperformance also exists to design evidence-based solutions. This can be the starting point to pursue any efforts to promote and improve the status of girls’ education in Pakistan. Drawing upon the existing understanding within the field from Pakistan and globally, we can consider some options to accelerate work on improving the education of girls education.
If started with a deficit-based approach, well-intentioned efforts will be exhausted in identifying and subsequently removing the barriers towards the education of girls. A pitfall of this approach can be the overly disproportionate attention paid towards the culture, traditions and social conservatism of families and communities at the cost of ignoring the fundamental structural and systemic issues. We need to recognise the cultural shift. Parents and communities in tribal societies, rural areas, urban centres and even in financially As a result, it is essential to focus on the transition from the primary level towards secondary education where unique barriers for the education of adolescent girls still persist.
However, while designing interventions, we need to be conscious about adopting a linear and one-dimensional approach to consider the cultural resistance for female education as the core barrier. The issues of safety, female mobility, health and hygiene, livelihoods and family finances are inextricably tied with the education of adolescent girls.
In order to initiate a programme that could bring about a significant improvement in the status of female education, it is important to define the expected outcomes clearly and realistically. In a programme that seeks to make girls confident, active, productive, and empowered citizens of the country, putting girls in schools will not be enough. The initiative will need to include contextually relevant, culturally sensitive and outcome-focused interventions. These efforts should not only work towards increasing the enrolment of girls, but must also provide quality transformative learning experiences to them.
A girl’s capacity for empowered action is developed through her experiences and training in the classrooms and through her interactions at home. As a result, teachers who are trained on a gender-responsive pedagogy can become key catalysts for the empowerment of female students. In a similar vein, mothers and male members of families – especially fathers and brothers – should be engaged to ensure the family’s support for a girl’s right to education and making choices in life.
The evidence confirms that some tried-and-tested successful initiatives to promote the education of girls exist in Pakistan even though they are scattered and implemented on small-scale. It is important to identify what is already working, leverage complementarities among different initiatives and create partnerships for the holistic coverage of different aspects of female education. The elevation of these initiatives can save not only time and resources for piloting new models, but can also set the foundation for local acceptance and community support for the interventions. However, the scaling-up process needs to be thoughtfully designed through a participative process with careful attention to the operational issues of delivery. It is also important to create policy support to safeguard the sustainability of these programmes.
When considering policy support in favour of the education of girls, it is not always necessary to advocate and work towards new policies. Pakistan is a signatory of many global commitments for gender equity – including those for education – and also has national plans like Vision 2025 and the National Education Policy which aims to foster gender equity. In order to take accelerated action, the spotlight should be put on the promising gender equity elements in the existing government policy frameworks. A more focused approach on technical assistance should be provided to strengthen the capacity for policy implementation and the accountability processes.
In the nutshell, some options for advancing efforts to improve the standards of education for girls in Pakistan include a deeper consideration of age-specific and context-sensitive barriers for girls. We must also create an ecosystem of successful models for female education. Efforts must also be taken to activate key catalysts for the empowerment of girls at schools and homes and stimulate positive examples from the policy context. Steps must also be taken to ensure their accountability.
These are not easy options. As a result, efforts to boost the education of girls must be adopted within the complex social, political, cultural and economic context of a country. This multidimensional agenda should be anchored by ensuring that the voices of girls assume centre-stage and allowing girls to actively participate in these efforts. While weaving these multiple threads into effective, relevant and acceptable patterns in education, the pivot should be the girls themselves.
The writer is an education adviser at the Aga Khan Foundation Pakistan.