Last year saw the publication of ‘Womansplaining – Navigating Activism, Politics and Modernity in Pakistan,’ a book edited by Federal Minister Sherry Rehman to which I was able to contribute a chapter. It connected education with women’s rights and argued that indigenous movements like the Aurat March should focus on education as a core part of their agenda.
Detractors of Pakistan’s women’s rights movement have been taking potshots at it by claiming that the issues it raises are not the issues of ‘real’ (read: rural) women. Put aside for a minute the fact that Pakistan’s rural population now accounts for 62 per cent, down from 72 per cent in 1980, and is on a steady decline. While the numbers may differ, and women’s power to negotiate may differ, rural and urban women share basic challenges and better education can yield similar opportunities and improvements in life circumstances.
Indigenous progressive and women’s rights movements have adopted the cause of education as an agenda item but should make it front and center, specifically K-12 education for girls in rural areas. New data further substantiates that connection with numbers. Education up to the higher secondary level, just the education that rural schools offer today, is the enabler that brings increased women’s labour force participation, delayed first marriage, lower rates of consanguinity, increased income, increased spousal income, and is a contributing factor to greater freedom of movement and communication – all positives.
Studies exploring the relationships between levels of education and life circumstances around the world are plentiful and capture the situation at a point and place in time. The Learning and Educational Achievements in Pakistan Schools (LEAPS) programme is qualitatively different because it already spans a period of almost two decades. The LEAPS programme has been tracking lower- and middle-income households in 120 randomly selected villages across three districts in rural Punjab since 2003. It has been revisiting them since then, most recently for the sixth time in 2018, roughly once every three years. That makes it one of the largest and longest panels of households in lower- and middle-income countries. This study is also unique as it looks at return on investment in education beyond an individual’s income and looks into the possible spillover into life circumstances and quality-of-life which is especially interesting for those interested in women empowerment and feminist movements.
In this latest round it surveyed 2006 women now aged 20-30. All these women were from the same 120 birth villages and have been tracked to their marital homes within or outside the village if they have married, migrated or moved for any other reason. Preliminary descriptive results of the long-running LEAPS study tell interesting stories. The headline finding of LEAPS investigators is that Pakistan is in the midst of a ‘generational shift’ where, for the first time in its education history, we have a ‘critical mass of moderately educated women’.
In this generation only 18.7 per cent of rural women are without an education, down from 75.5 per cent from their mothers’ generation. Nearly 50 per cent have an education ranging from a primary to secondary education, up from just 20 per cent in the previous generation. A stunning 22.9 per cent have a higher secondary or above education, up from an almost nothing 0.3 per cent in their previous generation.
Even more interestingly, while educational attainment of women generally lags that of men at the low end, women outnumber men at the high end. Only 18.4 per cent of men reach the higher secondary and above levels against 22.9 per cent of women.
Another headline from the data is that there is a noticeable bifurcation in the lives of women that aligns with their education levels. Women with an education less than a higher secondary education lead lives that are very different from women in the same rural locality but with higher secondary education. Those that manage to cross that divide enjoy not only economic returns but also a better quality of life.
More educated women were found to enjoy higher spousal incomes (Rs30,793 for those with higher secondary or above education vs Rs14,027 for women with no education). They have a much higher likelihood of being employed (19 per cent vs only one per cent) and enjoy a higher average income (Rs12,107 vs Rs4,900). Hours of paid work go up while hours of housework go down with increasing levels of education for both married and unmarried women.
The nature of their work also changes with education levels. Working women without an education are not found in jobs that require frequent reading. This increases to 17 per cent for those with less than a primary education, 38 per cent for those with a primary to higher secondary education and climbs to 88 per cent for those with a higher secondary or above education. The same trend (albeit with different numbers) is seen for working women in jobs that require frequent writing, frequent calculating, use of a computer and jobs that require learning something new.
The trend is the reverse for blue-collar jobs: Working women in rural areas without an education are more likely to have to work in harsh weather, use dangerous tools and heavy machinery and risk exposure to fumes, gasses or dust. These trends go to show that most employment opportunities available to women require an education (largely teaching) more than physical strength.
These are only some of the highlights of the latest survey of the LEAPS programme which is packed with more data that quantifies some previously known trends for women in rural areas.
Unlike for boys and men, who are often sent off to relatives (in cities or abroad) to work as labourers or pick up a trade, employment opportunities for women tend to remain restricted to their locality where the labour market remains thin and has few and specific opportunities for them, mostly as teachers. On the positive side, when the number of educated women in a village grows beyond a critical mass, it becomes possible to open a local school, which then further raises educational attainment levels in that locality, thus creating a virtuous cycle.
There are several studies that are yielding insightful data and evidence. However, it is in the nature of academia to focus on bite-sized problems. That means it is up to planners (like the Planning Commission) to identify credible studies, leverage the evidence they produce and puzzle together a coherent picture of the state of education, labour markets, etc, and develop a strategy to harness this generational shift. Early insights from LEAPS show that a formal labour market for women is virtually non-existent unless they complete higher secondary education. Pakistan is a low-middle income country and yet women continue to attain higher levels of education than in their preceding generation.
These findings are in-line with those from Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell’s 2020 book ‘Invisible China - How the Rural-Urban Divide Threatens China’s Rise’. Those who structurally remain outside of human capital development opportunities (such as the large rural population that lacks good nutrition, health and K-12 education) will remain left out of economic opportunities too, possibly leaving a country like China in the middle-income trap. The authors make the point that in order for a middle-income country to graduate to high income it needs to have universal school education. This is not possible with a single five-year plan but requires a sustained multi-decade, multi-generational investment in education before a country can hope to reach high income status. Pakistan is not in the same situation as China but the lesson is consistent: countries have to start investing in developing human capital long before they make the income jump and rural populations, men and women, cannot be left out.
For a quick look at how we are planning our education, review some basic statistics on the numbers of available schools. Our investment in human capital development is abysmally low. According to school census data reported in the 2017-18, there are 223,116 institutions in the formal schooling sector out of which 61 per cent are primary, 21 per cent are middle, 14 per cent are high, three per cent are higher-secondary schools and only one per cent are degree colleges/ universities. There is a steep drop-off in numbers as one goes up. In addition, we have 20-22 million children who remain out of school, most in the adolescent age group, girls from poor households located in rural areas.
Existing plans, at least in the domain of education, remain unguided by some of the very excellent evidence that is available. Meanwhile, the Planning Commission is organizing a ‘Turnaround Pakistan’ conference perhaps as early as May 28 to conduct national consultations. Whether a hurriedly thrown together conference can change the way business is done remains to be seen.
The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.
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