NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 47

Barriers to girls’ education in rural Pakistan

In recent times, Pakistan has witnessed the recognition and rewarding of several young female students for their exceptional contributions to the field of education. At the forefront of this list is the late Arfa Karim Randhawa (1995-2012), the world’s youngest Microsoft Certified Professional, who achieved remarkable feats for her country at a remarkably young age. Her legacy has been commemorated through the naming of various IT parks, scholarships, and medals in her honor.

Another outstanding Pakistani girl is Malala Yousafzai, a fervent advocate for female education and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. Her influence has led to the naming of educational institutions, including the Government Mission School near Civil Hospital in Karachi, in recognition of her contributions. This courageous young woman raised her voice against extremism in Swat, sending a powerful message to the world about the peaceful nature of Pakistanis.

However, these examples represent only a fraction of a more complex reality. In general, the state of women’s education in Pakistan is disheartening, with the voices advocating for equal educational rights for women remaining relatively muted. Pakistan’s female literacy rate ranks among the lowest globally, and there is a stark disparity between urban and rural women, with urban women boasting a literacy rate over five times higher than their rural counterparts. The dropout rate for girls, especially in rural areas, is alarmingly high, nearing 50%.

The primary reasons for the lack of parental interest in their daughters’ education are deeply rooted in religious and cultural beliefs, as well as the traditional agrarian economy. While boys in rural areas often receive a basic education, this opportunity is rare for girls, who are frequently engaged in domestic chores or fieldwork from as early as six years of age.

Educationists offer various explanations for the low female literacy rate in the country. Firstly, the population’s rapid growth is identified as a detrimental factor in female education, as families with limited resources tend to prioritize the education of boys over girls, who are often expected to acquire domestic skills.

Secondly, a prevailing misconception persists that women’s primary role is managing a household after marriage, while men are expected to provide financially. This belief system places greater emphasis on education for males and undermines its importance for females.

Thirdly, it is frequently observed that women are traditionally regarded as the property of male family members, who make decisions regarding their lives. In many cases, males prohibit their sisters or daughters from attending schools or universities. Furthermore, some families object to their daughters attending co-educational institutions, further limiting their access to higher education.

Fourthly, the societal structure is dominated by men, restricting the mobility of girls. As a result, male family members are often tasked with overseeing their safety, hindering female freedom of movement. Additionally, there is a distinct division between roles perceived as suitable for females and males, with females excluded from various spheres of life. Consequently, female education is not given the priority it deserves.

Official statistics reveal that in rural areas, only one in three women possesses the ability to read, though the actual figures are likely even lower. In a report released by the United Nations, it was starkly noted that education is often considered a “dream” for boys and “unimaginable” for girls in these regions.

The UN report disclosed that in most developing countries, including Pakistan, approximately 39% of rural girls attend secondary school. This percentage is significantly lower than that of rural boys (45%), urban girls (59%), and urban boys (60%) in the same category of developing states.

According to UN statistics from 68 countries, a woman’s level of education plays a pivotal role in determining a child’s chances of survival. In developing nations, children born to mothers with no education are 3.1 times more likely to die than those with mothers who have received secondary or tertiary education, and 1.6 times more likely to die than those with mothers who have primary-level education.

The report also highlighted that the scarcity of local schools is one of the reasons behind the low attendance of girls in high school. A study conducted in Pakistan revealed that the distance from school resulted in a 20% reduction in attendance. Meanwhile, research in Egypt, Indonesia, and Africa has shown that locating schools closer to home leads to higher attendance rates.

As previously mentioned, religious beliefs and cultural norms continue to pose significant barriers to girls’ access to education. One female researcher quoted a cleric who vehemently opposed higher education for girls in his Friday prayers sermon, attributing the perceived decline of the Muslim world to sending daughters abroad for education and inviting “God’s wrath.” This illustrates a mindset that is inherently opposed to girls’ education. A district program manager for an organization focused on women’s empowerment and female education in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa conveyed that many people are apprehensive about sending their daughters to school.

It is indeed a tragic reality that even women in our society are not fully convinced of the importance of girls’ education. It is undeniable that many acts of brutality against women find complicit female participants. Whether it is the act of “forbidding” girls from attending schools or instances of “domestic violence,” women often collaborate with men in perpetuating a society that does not ensure the safety and well-being of women. Perhaps these actions are driven by resentment harbored by women who once endured deprivation of their fundamental rights when they were young. Sadly, girls are primarily taught by their mothers to fulfill roles as dutiful wives and daughters.