NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 51

Stories of struggles and hope

Anam Fatima, Shahida Parveen, and Zahida Aslam share several commonalities. They all reside in a remote village in the Tehsil of Yazman within the Bahawalpur district. These young women come from economically disadvantaged farming families and were unable to complete their primary education, despite the presence of a government primary school in their village.

Each of the three girls had her unique reasons for discontinuing her education, but the ultimate outcome remains the same: the nation has lost the opportunity for three educated mothers. Here are the circumstances that led to these impoverished girls leaving their primary education unfinished:

Anam Fatima, at just nine years old, is the eldest among her four siblings. Her educational journey was cut short last year when her mother tragically passed away during the birth of her youngest brother. In the absence of another female caregiver at home while her father works in the fields, Anam had to take on the responsibility of looking after her younger siblings, particularly her newborn brother, who required round-the-clock care. This necessitated the discontinuation of Anam’s education.

Shahida Parveen faced the unfortunate fate of being a school dropout. Struggling with her studies as a grade-3 student, she had to endure the constant scolding and anger of her teacher. Despite being physically healthier than most girls her age, Shahida had to endure daily taunts of “Mota jism mota dimagh” (Fat body, dull brain) from both her teacher and classmates. She often received harsher punishments than her peers for similar mistakes, solely because of her weight. Unable to tolerate this unkind treatment any longer, she fled her school one day and never returned, despite facing her mother’s scoldings.

Zahida Aslam had to abandon her school for entirely different reasons. A brilliant fourth-grade student, she was forced to discontinue her education due to a clash of egos between her teacher and her father, Chaudhry Muhammad Aslam. The school lacked a janitor or a cleaner for the classrooms, so the senior teacher assigned this task to the students. A group of five girls would arrive an hour early each day to clean the school premises and sweep the floors before returning home to change into their uniforms and attend classes. The senior teacher had formed various groups, each with one student from every class to rotate the duty.

However, last year, Chaudhry Aslam returned to his village after three years working in Saudi Arabia and discovered his daughter, whom he lovingly referred to as his “shahzadi” (princess), participating in the cleaning duty at school. He prevented her from continuing this work and met with the school’s headmistress to express his concerns. He questioned why his daughter was required to sweep the school’s floors when the headmistress herself didn’t do it in her own home. In response, the headmistress informed him that all the girls, including his daughter, were treated equally, as they were all considered “shahzadis” by their parents. She bluntly advised Chaudhry Aslam that if he objected to this practice, he was welcome to enroll his daughter in another school.

Enraged by the teacher’s actions, Chaudhry Aslam returned home and informed his wife that their “shahzadi” would not attend the “unclean” government school. He vowed to build a house in Bahawalpur and enroll their daughter in a reputable private school. Consequently, Shahzadi Zahida Aslam has been patiently waiting for the past one-and-a-half years for her father to fulfill this promise so that she can resume her education.

In addition to the stories of Anam, Shahida, and Zahida, Ellen Van Kalmthout, who has served as the Chief of Education at UNICEF Pakistan since 2016, offers further insights into the reasons behind girls dropping out of school after completing their primary education. According to her, one significant factor is the scarcity of middle schools for girls, which often leads to girls leaving the educational system after primary school. She explains that the distance to schools is another crucial consideration for girls, as parents tend to be more concerned about their safety. Boys typically enjoy more independent mobility. Furthermore, there are families who hesitate to send adolescent girls to school due to concerns related to the marriageable age.

Van Kalmthout emphasizes that the prevailing belief that Pakistani parents do not wish to send their daughters to school is incorrect. She points to a study conducted among beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), one of the poorest segments of the population, which revealed that the percentage of parents opposed to sending their children to school is minimal. This demonstrates that parents do indeed desire to provide education for both their sons and daughters. However, specific concerns must be addressed. For instance, parents in Pakistan may worry about their daughters’ safety if the school is far away, they may prefer female teachers for their girls, or they may hesitate due to the absence of girls-only schools. Other deterrents include low teacher attendance, corporal punishment, or the lack of proper sanitation facilities in rural schools, which can discourage parents from sending their children to school.

Nevertheless, Van Kalmthout expresses concern about the high number of out-of-school children in Pakistan. She notes that currently, there are 262 million children worldwide who are not attending school, and in Pakistan, the number stands at approximately 23 million for children aged 5 to 16. Disturbingly, 40% of all Pakistani children are still out of school, with the percentage of out-of-school girls reaching 49%. The problem becomes more pronounced at the middle and secondary school levels, and very few children in the country have the opportunity to complete their matriculation and FA/FSc.

With over 30 years of international education experience, Van Kalmthout asserts that in a country like Pakistan, characterized by high population growth rates, the challenge is not only about reintegrating existing out-of-school children into the education system but also enrolling a growing number of new children into primary schools each year.

Furthermore, a report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issues a warning that by the 2030 deadline, one in four Pakistani children will not complete their primary education. The new projections suggest that the country will only be halfway toward achieving the goal of 12 years of education for all, with 50% of youths failing to complete upper secondary education at current rates.

The new global education goal, SDG-4, urges countries to ensure that children not only attend school but also receive a quality education. However, the proportion of trained teachers in Pakistan, as well as in other countries, has been declining in recent years. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development underscores the importance of leaving no one behind, yet only 4% of the poorest individuals in the poorest countries complete upper secondary school, compared to 36% of the wealthiest. This gap is even wider in lower-middle-income countries, including Pakistan. The situation should raise alarm bells for the government.