The gender gaps in access to quality education for girls must be closed
“I know I can turn around my fate if I am enabled; not just mine but also of my family and extended families. For me, education, skills and opportunities are my lifeline,” says Aminah, a Siyani Saheli from rural Muzaffargarh and a recent Grade 10 pass out from a second chance girls’ programme. She is now completing her higher secondary education and running a small enterprise. Aminah’s is not a unique aspirational voice of an assertive young woman. It is representative of thousands of girls in Pakistan who are being extended opportunities for learning through catch-up programmes and targeted fellowships with small grants to build their capacity in multiple fields. These fellowships/ grants are in STEM training, film making, livelihoods, innovations and startups. Organisations like the Malala Fund, Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (SOC) Films, Science Fuse, Acumen Fund and Circle Women are investing in girls and young women to become heroes and change agents not just in large cities but also in remote areas of Pakistan.
The paradox is that whilst all this is happening, in terms of the Global Gender Gap Index (2022), the country is placed 145 out of 146 states, in the latest Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum.
Why is Pakistan lagging so far behind, surpassing even Nigeria in the out-of-school children and girls left behind? What is holding Pakistan back in providing its girls and women the systematic sustained support that will enable the country to reach gender parity, equality and empowerment, benefiting not just the girls/ women but also families and generations? There could not be a better case for investment and its high returns than girls’ education. And yet, this powerful choice eludes a coherent sustained strategy backed by the resources that will not be subject to political compromises. The time is right as the girls have been making headway through every opportunity provided – they are now the lever for a geometric progression to even the smallest investments made close to their homes.
Parents are keen to support girls if there is an enabling environment for education, access to schools up to secondary level, skills and livelihoods. But when there are no facilities to go to safely, the patriarchal mindset rears its head.
Over the last 12 years, ASER Pakistan has been tracking gender trends in learning. It is clear that the learning gaps between girls and boys are narrowing but girls still tend to lag behind boys; in some districts they are a bit ahead. The nationwide surveys undertaken by ITA in rural, urban, urban slums and political constituencies are gender and income disaggregated to highlight the challenges not just across gender but also across wealth, geography and indeed within homes as well, when it comes to household choices vis-à-vis girls and boys. There is an urgency to appreciate the state of learning for both girls and boys in terms of where they live and their wealth groups but also by disability and faith; girls tend to lose out more severely at these intersections, especially in vulnerable households.
Rights and entitlements always go in clusters. Article 25 reads, “All citizens regardless of any discrimination,” and establishes inclusivity and equality for the right to education for children aged 5 to 16 as determined by law. The point is: is it equal? If not, then what must be done to close the gap and achieve that milestone through an aggressive supply side action responding to rising demand for quality education for girls?
The girls and women in Pakistan do not want to be seen as lagging behind, reflected formally as 22 percent of the economic workforce, or dropping out after Grade 5. They want to lead fulfilled lives as contemporary contributors to society and as major pillars of economic, social and emotional support for their families and communities with resilience. They know that if their aspirations are unmet, they will fall victims to the oppressive norms that raise their head every time options close out for girls in Pakistan. Parents are keen to support girls if there is an enabling environment for education, access to schools up to secondary level, skills and livelihoods. But when there are no facilities to go to safely, or persistently low and/ or no learning, the patriarchal mindset rears its head. The options close out for them pushing them into child marriages, child domestic labour and/ or to become surrogate mothers. A girl empowered through education and skills, has the potential to be a Malala, Noorena Shams or Bismah Maroof. These paradoxes of liberation and patriarchy remain active in volatile social, economic and political fabric of our country. This hit and miss approach to girls and women’s rights in Pakistan must end; it is neither affordable nor desirable.
The writer is the CEO of Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi, a Pakistan Learning Festival founder and an Education Commission commissioner. She can be reached at email@example.com