Anam Fatima, Shahida Parveen and Zahida Aslam have many things in common. They all live in a far-off village, Chak No 108/DNB, of tehsil Yazman in district Bahawalpur. They belong to poor farmer families and they all did not complete their primary education, though a government primary school exists in their own village.
The three have their own reasons for not continuing their education, though the ultimate result is the same: the future of the country has been deprived of three educated mothers. Here’re the reasons why the poor girls had to leave their primary education unaccomplished. Nine-year-old Anam Fatima is eldest among her four siblings and she had to leave her school last year without appearing in her fourth grade examination when her mother passed away during the birth of her youngest brother. There’s no other woman in her house to look after the households when her father is in the fields. Her younger siblings, especially the newborn brother, need the attention of a caretaker 24 hours a day, hence discontinuation of Anam’s education.
Shahida Parveen was a typical example of a school dropout. A grade-3 slow-learner, she had to face the wrath of an angry teacher almost every other day. Physically healthier than girls of her age group, Shahida had to endure taunts of “Mota jism mota dimagh” (Fat body, fat brain) by her teacher as well as classmates daily. Many a time she would face more punishment than other girls for the same mistake, only because of being fat. She could not bear with the unkind circumstances for long and fled her school one day, and never went back despite her mother’s two, three beatings.
Zahida Aslam had to leave her school for quite a different reason. A brilliant fourth grader, she had to quit education due to inflated egos of her teacher and her father, Chaudhry Muhammad Aslam. As the school has no sweeper or a peon to clean the classrooms, the senior among the two teachers had assigned the task to the students. A group of five girls would come to school daily an hour before its start time, clean the premises and sweep the floors, and go back home to wear uniforms to come to school again. Various groups had been formed by the senior teacher with one student from each class to perform the duty one after the other.
Last year, Chaudhry Aslam returned to his village from Saudi Arabia after three years, and found his “shahzadi” (princess) going to school for cleaning it on her turn. He stopped her from going to school for the purpose, and himself met the headmistress to tell her that how come she can make his shahzadi sweep the floors in school when she does nothing sort of even in her house. “But here, your shahzadi will have to do it, like all other girls,” the teacher told the Chaudhry in a tit-for-tat response. “They all are ‘shahzadis’ of their parents, and I can’t spare only one because her father has come to me complaining about it. If you have any objection to it, you may admit your daughter to any other school,” the teacher bluntly told him.
Fuming at the teacher, he came back home and told his wife his shahzadi would not go to the “dirty” government school, and soon he would build a house in Bahawalpur and admit his shahzadi to a good private school. And for the last one-and-a-half years, Shahzadi Zahida Aslam has been waiting for her father to build a house in Bahawalpur so that she can resume her studies.
Besides the stories of Anam, Shahida and Zahida, Ellen Van Kalmthout, Chief of Education at UNICEF Pakistan since 2016, has some other reasons to relate for girls dropping out once they complete their primary education. She tells the Cutting Edge at a seminar, held recently in Punjab’s capital, that there are fewer middle schools for girls; so often girls drop out because there may not be a school for them beyond the primary level. She explains that distance is often an important factor for girls, as parents are usually more concerned about their safety. Boys will often have more independent mobility. Also, there are families, who are concerned about sending adolescent girls to school, because they are of what is considered the marriageable age.
The focus of the UNESCO official has always been on education system development and girls education. She does not agree that Pakistani parents do not wish to send their daughters to school. She says that some years back, there was a study made among Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) beneficiaries, who are among the poorest in the country, which found that the percentage of parents, who do not wish to send their children to school, was miniscule. It shows that parents do want to send their children, both boys and girls, to school but in some cases, they have some specific concerns which must be addressed. For instance, she explains, in Pakistan parents may be concerned about the safety of their daughters if the school is far away; they may prefer women to teach their girls or they may hesitate because there is no girls-only schools. Other reasons may be low teacher attendance, corporal punishment or lack of sanitation facilities in rural schools, which may be discouraging for parents.
However, she is concerned about a large number of out-of-school children in Pakistan. She says currently, there are 262 million children in the world, who are out of school, and for Pakistan, the number is about 23 million for children between the ages of 5 and 16. She regrets that 40% of all Pakistani children are still out of school, with the ratio of out-of-school girls 49%. The number of out-of-school children becomes higher at middle and secondary school levels, she says, adding that very few children in the country have an opportunity to complete their matriculation and FA/FSc.
Van Kalmthout, who has over 30 years of experience in international education, says that for a country like Pakistan, where population growth rates are high, the challenge is not only of bringing existing out-of-school children into the education system, but also of greater numbers of new children, who need to be enrolled into primary school each year.
Meanwhile, a report issued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in the second week of July 2019, must attract the attention of the authorities concerned. It warns that every one in four Pakistani children will not be completing their primary school by the deadline of 2030. The new projections, made in the report, show that the country will only be half-way to the target of 12 years of education for all, with 50% of youths still not completing upper secondary education at the current rates.
The new global education goal, SDG-4, calls on countries to ensure that children are not only going to school but also learning, yet the proportion of trained teachers in Pakistan as well as various other countries has been falling in the recent years. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development emphasises leaving no-one behind, yet only 4% of the poorest complete upper secondary school in the poorest countries, compared to 36% of the richest. The gap is even wider in lower-middle-income countries, including Pakistan. The situation must set alarming bells ringing for Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has always claimed giving special importance to health and education sectors.