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November 25, 2020

Covid-19 — a threat to progress on girls’ education in Pakistan

National

November 25, 2020

Islamabad: COVID-19 has widened existing educational inequalities in Pakistan, particularly affecting girls in more marginalised areas and poorer households, making girls most at risk of dropping out, particularly in interior districts.

These findings made part of a research report, “Girls’ education and COVID-19 in Pakistan” commissioned by Malala Fund with the help of Education Champion Network. The report highlights the impact of school closures on students, across the country, with an emphasis on girls’ experiences.

The Education Champion Network supports the grassroots girls’ education advocates in Pakistan. These champions serve as the voice of girls’ education and help communities develop solutions. Representatives from the network include activists, academics and education leaders.

Currently, there are 22.8 million out-of-school children in Pakistan. Out of these 53 per cent (13.4 million) are girls. The report notes the pandemic’s effects on household finances and how this economic crisis has the potential to prevent even more girls from completing their education. Girls also had a harder time accessing devices and distance learning during the initial lockdown. This is unlikely to change now.

The report highlights that during lockdown, government support for distance learning principally relied on TV, radio and e-learning, but the majority of the students surveyed did not have access to these. Only 20 per cent of girls and boys reported to spend time on educational TV and just 3 per cent on educational radio.

About 60 per cent of the respondents had smartphones, but three-quarters of those with access reported only being able to afford data intermittently. Girls were almost 40 per cent more likely than boys to say that they never had access to a mobile device and the most frequently cited reason for not accessing a phone was being afraid to ask. Only 1 per cent of the interviewed students used Edtech for distance learning.

Madiha Rehman, Director Programs - AzCorp Entertainment stated that while there are effective Edtech platforms available in Pakistan, in most of the rural areas accessibility to the internet remains a major challenge. In households where there is access, girls are often not allowed to use the internet.

“There is a need for the government to launch a multi-stakeholder response to ensure the availability and access to high-speed internet across the country. The government also needs to devise disaster management protocols for education systems that foresee school closures. In such a system, the teachers need to be technologically literate with infrastructure and skills to help children continue their learning through blended learning platforms during any future pandemics. However, all these efforts will not yield the desired results unless communities and parents are educated not only on the importance of girls’ right to education but also to normalize the access to technology for girls,” she said.

Qamar Naseem, founder of Blue Vein stated, this is alarming to note in the findings of the report that girls from more marginalised communities and/or poorer households tended to be the least optimistic about returning to school. Girls were more likely to cite withdrawal of parental permission, while boys were more likely to point to the expense of school and the need to earn income for their households. The report also reveals gender disparity in the way boys and girls spent their time during the school closure. About 40 per cent girls reported spending time on household chores compared to 11 per cent boys.

Whereas, 19 per cent girls reported spending time on leisure activities such as playing with friends compared to 44 per cent boys.

The report notes that already struggling with limited financing — with budgetary allocations to education accounting for only 2 per cent of the GDP — the additional demands placed on the education system by COVID-19 have placed an extra strain on resources. However, far from providing the cash needed to meet the needs, for the phased reopening of schools from September, the government has actually rerouted funds. The annual budget, announced in June, did not include any special grants or emergency provisions for COVID-19 related expenditures for the education sector.

Areebah Shahid, Country Director Pakistan Youth Change Advocates stated that the government needs to Introduce an immediate increase in education development budgets across the board and roll-back any cuts on the development budget introduced during the fiscal year 2020-21. The government should also adopt a budgetary practice where one-third of the education budget is allocated for administrative expenses (utilities, salaries, fuel, maintenance etc.) and two-third for development expenditure (e.g. creation of new schools and upgradation of existing ones, teacher trainings, provision of teaching aides, enhancement of stipend programs for out-of-school girls, more effective enrolment drives etc.)

They said that actors at all levels can help, but ultimately the government — at federal and provincial levels — must take the lead.