If you’re a girl, and you’d like to go to school, statistically speaking, one of the worst places in the world for you is Pakistan. In recent years, in some parts of the country, the Taliban has been waging an active war against girls’ schooling.If you are unfamiliar with the current situation in Pakistan, it isn’t pretty ““ spillover from the U.S. war in Afghanistan means that the Taliban has been gaining strength in Pakistan, and recent years have been marred with warfare and suicide bombings. In addition to these man-made disasters, in August of 2010, Pakistan saw horrific flooding that killed hundreds of people and displaced millions.
The Federal Education Ministry of Pakistan, by way of UNESCO, gives us the numbers necessary to get some perspective on the situation: the national literacy rate is 46 percent, and the literacy rate is 26 percent for girls and 12 percent for women, though this figure includes people who are unable to do much more than sign their own name. In the two regions hit hardest by the Taliban, the North West Frontier Providence and Baluchistan, the female literacy rate is between 3 and 8 percent.
To comply with gender segregation laws, there are no mixed-gender schools in Pakistan. Out of 163,000 primary schools, only 40,000 cater to girls. At the secondary level, there are 14,000 lower secondary schools, with 5,000 for girls, and 10,000 upper secondary schools, with only 3,000 for girls. (When speaking of “lower” and “upper” secondary schools, feel free to sub in “junior high” and “senior high” if it gives your brain less pause.) There are about 250 girls’ colleges.
If those numbers may not seem so bad, let us remember that Pakistan is a heavily populated country ““ there are over 32 million girls under the age of 14 in Pakistan, yet according to the most recent statistics from the Education Ministry, less than 13 million girls are enrolled in formally recognized schools. Even for the girls who are officially enrolled, that says nothing of how frequently they actually go to school or the quality of their schooling. Additionally, these statistics are from 2006, and much has changed in Pakistan in the past five years, including a massive increase in anti-girls’ schooling actions.
Indeed, between 2007 and 2008, girls’ schools were attacked so frequently, it averaged out to one school being destroyed per day. In addition, acid attacks on girls seen attending school were common. While things have calmed down slightly in the past 2 years, there are still news articles from recent weeks telling of thugs attacking girls’ schools and beating everyone in sight.
Aside from the violence, school is expensive, in terms of both time and money. There are fees for private schools (which are almost always of a higher quality than public schools) in addition to the cost of books, uniforms, transportation and other expenses. In terms of time, many girls have significant responsibilities at home, or must work to support their families and themselves. There are also parents and community leaders who are ideologically opposed to educating girls. Note I said ideologically, not religiously. The idea that Islam is against the education of girls is simply wrong. So really, even if there is a girls’ school near your home, and your parents (for economic as well as ideological reasons) allow you to attend, you could still have acid thrown in your face for attending, or your school could be bombed or set upon by thugs acting as the “moral brigade.” Small wonder the literacy rate is practically non-existent in some places.
However! Because this has been such a huge problem for so long, there is a LOT being done about it. UNICEF has launched the PGEI, the Pakistan Girls’ Education Initiative, a network comprised of Pakistani government ministries and several UN organizations, in December of 2010 to more fully address the educational needs of girls in Pakistan. This is the latest in a series of initiatives by UNICEF and/or the Pakistani government to increase girls’ schooling.
Other earlier initiatives have included media campaigns directed at explaining the importance of girls’ schooling to parents, the push for child-friendly schools, and an increase in the number of non-formal schools. Both “child-friendly” and “non-formal,” while they seem to be simple words, mean specific things in terms of education. Child-friendly schools aim “to operate in the best interests of the child,” which may sound obvious, but the focus on making sure that schools are safe environments, with well trained-teachers and supplies, and even food available when necessary, makes a huge difference in the quality of education and in attendance. Non-formal education, which is schooling that occurs outside of a formal school, makes specific sense in Pakistan, where schools are so clearly targets.
And while the actions of the government and big NGOs are undoubtably important, if not essential, I want to know what women are doing at the grassroots level, to make sure that their daughters and sisters and sometimes they themselves are educated.
The Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy (PODA) was founded by two women in 2003 who were frustrated at the living conditions for rural women in Pakistan. They work to support the rights of rural women on many levels, but in terms of education, they have trained hundreds of teachers, run several schools, and offer workshops and seminars to educate women and girls. These workshops are of especial note, as they can cover anything from literacy to life skills to human rights training ““ informing women of the rights owed to them by society.
Khwendo Kor is a woman-led Pakistani organization which aims to improve women’s financial and social status via, among other things, education. The organization is active in the North West Frontier Providence, where girls’ education is rarest. Khwendo Kor, which means “Sister’s House,” is currently rebuilding schools and medical clinics destroyed by wars and floods. In previous years, they have raised awareness of the importance of educating girls, and advocated for girls’ attendance. KK has created dozens of girls’ primary schools, and since 1993, have facilitated over 13,000 girls’ primary schooling. They are also carrying out teacher training programs. Teacher training is essential, because, as the schools are segregated by gender, only women can work as teachers in girls schools. Because girls’ education in Pakistan has been in such bad shape for so long, finding women who are educated enough to teach others is increasingly a challenge. Educating women to become teachers, therefore, is a cornerstone to getting more girls into school.
These two organizations are remarkable, not only for the work that they do, but because they are founded and run by women. I ought to point out that there are similar organizations, created and run by men, but I wish to highlight the bravery of the women in the organizations mentioned above. In a society where girls can literally be killed for even attending school, these women have created organizations that have, both directly and indirectly, made it possible for thousands of girls to go to school.
Pakistan is facing a lot of challenges right now, but between the hard work of international organizations and incredibly brave local women, girls’ education in Pakistan is bound to improve.