Little Amna was a high achiever at school. After the mandatory afternoon nap, she’d take out her notebooks and look at the remarks given by her teacher. “I used to get ‘well done’ all the time.” Now 30, Amna* smiled like a child when she mentioned her past achievements. “I had to drop out of school because my taya (father’s elder brother) wanted me to marry his son. My family couldn’t say no.”
“But I have completed my matriculation,” she said with well-deserved pride in her tone. Amna works as a house help in a middle-class neighbourhood. Schools in the locality do not offer quality education, but they are accessible.
“My six-year-old daughter goes to school, and I am willing to do anything to make sure that she completes her education.” Even though she tried to conceal the regrets that were quite apparent in her eyes, she surrendered and acknowledged that her fate did play a cruel joke with her. With tears in her eyes, she added, “My father had money, and he wanted me to study. But then we had to sell our land in rural Sindh and move to Karachi. Even after his migration to the city, he enrolled me and my siblings in good schools. Things didn’t work out for him, and he had to rely on his brother for financial assistance.”
“My father has now realised that he should have focused more on my education. But I believe in moving on. I want my daughter to have everything I could not have.” In an attempt to justify her father’s decision, she added, “A lot of people think that lower-income families do not have acceptance regarding girls’ education. This is not the case. We are in the middle of a serious battle between managing our finances and fighting for our rights. There is a possibility that, had my father fought for my education, I would have completed my undergrad, but at what cost? When we pull our children out of school and ask them to help us earn money, we do it because we do not have any other option. My family is not conservative, but when you have bills to pay and when you depend on someone else to pay off your financial responsibility, you do not raise your voice for yourself.”
Amna is one of the many women in our country who have to drop out of school for multiple reasons. In a country where women make up half of the total population, it is quite unfortunate the literacy rate for women here is around 47 per cent. Many educationists and independent analysts think that the actual number is significantly lower than this.
This could be true since this number includes people over the age of 15 who can read and write. “A woman who is able to write her name on a piece of paper is usually considered ‘educated’.” Naila Tariq*, a professor at a public-sector high school, said. “I have been teaching for over 30 years now, and over the years, I have seen a shift in people’s approach towards education. It is true that many people are getting their daughters educated, but there is a stark dip in quality of education. And since many women do not have the right exposure, they lag behind in industries. When they fail to get a good job, they wrongly believe that their degrees are of no use. Those who look up to them often get demotivated and start telling themselves that degrees will not help them upgrade their lives.”
“Such misconceptions are hard to fight. There are so many factors involved that you cannot say with certainty that a degree will be useful for them.” Naila shared that a commendable rise in the number of girls’ enrolment is a result of a strange phenomenon, “Some women get enrolled at colleges and higher-ed institutions to ‘kill the time’. Those waiting for good proposals get admission to ‘keep themselves busy’ and leave the studies mid-way whenever a good proposal comes in.”
“And this is not limited to a certain class. Girls from strong financial backgrounds often choose marriage over studies.” Naila readjusted herself in the chair and continued, “This doesn’t imply that girls don’t want to get educated or that they are not serious. I have had many bright students in my class – geniuses, I must say. They are intelligent and competent, and I know that they are destined for great things. But, yes, there are certain factors that play a big role in keeping women’s literacy rate low.”
Novelist and teacher Taha Kehar shared, “While teaching at a higher education institute, I’ve come across brilliant female students who excel in academics and often give their male counterparts a run for their money. They usually score high marks throughout the semester and participate in class discussions. Unfortunately, this isn’t a uniform trend. I’ve also come across copious intelligent women in my classes who tend to lose interest in their academic life. Their indifference can be attributed to a structural malaise within our society.”
“A vast majority of women are discouraged from pursuing higher education by their often-patriarchal family structures as they are led to believe that marriage is their eventual, if not ultimate, goal. I’ve always believed that this explanation has been used as a pretext to justify discrimination against women. Gender-based discrimination is the cause and effect of Pakistan’s abysmally low female literacy rates. This practice may happen at varying degrees in rural and urban centres, but its existence cannot be denied. A more concerted effort is needed at the policy level to encourage more women to pursue higher education,” he explained.
Nadeem Hussain, an economic and education policy researcher and strategist, believes that there has been a remarkable improvement in terms of people’s willingness to send their daughters to school. His field research has brought him to this conclusion: even though there is some acceptability regarding girls’ education, girls still don’t have access to quality education because of school shortages and mobility issues.
To further explain how school shortages affect girls’ education dreams, he quoted the example of Jacobabad, Sindh. “In this region, girls often complete their primary education till Grade 5 easily. However, there are no secondary schools in the vicinity, impelling girls to discontinue their education.” He observed that people in these regions, which are normally deemed conservative, do not oppose to girls’ education. But since there are no schools, there is no option for girls.
The other issue which plays a big role in restricting women’s race towards quality education is mobility. “In Karachi, a metropolis, a girl student from Baldia Town will have to take four buses to reach Sir Syed Government Girls College in Nazimabad,” Nadeem explained. This indicates how in a city with practically no urban planning, people have to sp end hours in covering short distances – the distance between the college and Baldia Town is only 12.6kms.
Such issues are often met with suggestion of opting for private conveyance. This too is not feasible. Nadeem noted that some households have either no motorcycles or the vehicle is in use of some other family member. Girls cannot expect their brothers or fathers to drop them off to college because they have other commitments to fulfil. Rabia Hussain*, a single mother, brought another perspective to the debate. A mother of three, Rabia was of the opinion that girls should ‘get married’ as early as possible. “I have two daughters, and I am constantly worried about their proposals. I am not opposed to their education, but they can continue their studies after their marriage too. A lot of women get married at a young age, and their life doesn’t stop. For me, I want to fulfil my responsibility as soon as possible so that I can relax a little. There is so much societal pressure on mothers, especially single mothers, and when it comes to a girls’ marriage, all fingers are pointed at mothers if her daughter doesn’t get married within a certain ‘age bracket’.” Rabia smiled.
Ujala Ahmed, an auditor at a private firm, explained that education is mandatory for getting a good job. “But if there is no end goal of getting a job, education, especially higher education, loses its charm. I have seen many promising girls who showed no interest in work and studies after they got a good marriage proposal,” she exclaimed.
“I am not going to blame girls for it. Our corporate world is still quite challenging for women. At homes, they have to deal with a complete patriarchal setup; at work, they are expected to forget about all the existing social and cultural norms. They cannot do that. They have to be at home to take care of her children or in-laws. Men don’t have the same responsibilities. Women end up performing two equally demanding jobs. Then, we don’t have flexible work hours, conveyance allowance, day care facilities, etc. This brings women at the crossroads where they have to make a difficult decision: choose a career or choose being stay-at-home housewife. Most of them choose the latter,” she concluded.
*Some names have been changed to maintain privacy.