A historic Government Girls High School at Serai Naurang near Lakki Marwat close to the volatile Waziristan the first ever girl’s school in the area built in 1922, today lies in dilapidated conditions and represents the state of education for girls in the region.
Even though the school was upgraded in 1935 to middle and in1965 to high, it still lacks basic facilities and the literacy rate in the region remains below a miserly 7 per cent among women, according to the local education department. The school was previously part of district Bannu and now has been included in district Lakki, but this change has not brought any well-being to it and the 800 girls that come every day to the school continue suffering.
Literacy rate among women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s settled districts in general and in tribal agencies in particular is dismally low causing adverse effects on the quality of life of women folk, with especially harmful effects noticeable in mother’s and children’s health.
According to surveys by Khwendo Kor (KK) or ‘sister’s home’, Maryum Bibi, Chief Executive KK relates that in Fata, there are areas where female literacy rates fall to a flat zero while in some places, it touches 3 per cent. Worsening security situation has delivered a further hit on the already dismal status of female education over the years.
“During a survey I found that a large number of men in tribal agencies were of the view that their women are not worth spending money on educating because they will go to someone else’s home after marriage anyway,” explained Dr Rehana Sajid, who works for a local organisation.
“Only 3 to 4 per cent girls pass their matric exam while the rest get married while they are still in their teens and never get a chance to attain school education. This trend has very negative effects on mother and children’s health. The maternal death ratio is therefore very high in Fata as compared to settled areas in KP,” revealed Dr Sajid.
Dr Sajid posits that owing to illiteracy, women often believe in superstitious practices. For instance, mothers sleep with their newborn babies in one bed to keep them away from evil spirits and in some cases it proves fatal.
Jazeb Ali from Bajaur, who himself lost a two month old daughter when she suffocated under the mother while they slept, relates that such incidents tend to happen frequently. “There are several incidents in our village. Last year three babies suffocated to death because of this,” he narrated, and added: “Because most women are uneducated they do not know how to handle small kids.”
While Ali’s causality might be questionable, there is an increasing push to improve the education situation because activists and NGOs hope that better educating the women will lead to improvement in other indicators too.
Maryum Bibi, Chief Exectuive of KK, works extensively on women issues in tribal agencies. She revealed that education is hardly the first thing on these women’s mind but lack of education causes them many problems:
“Following the military operations in tribal agencies, when women were forced into IDPs camps, most were unable to communicate their problems to the aid workers. Many did not have CNICs and other official documents with them, but those who were literate to some extent, found it easier to adjust,” revealed Maryum Bibi.
However, she continued, “Things are getting better - the community just needs a kick start, there need to be some sincere efforts.”
According to Pakistan Demographic Household Survey (PDHS) report for the year 2007-08 the maternal death and mortality rate (MMR) among women in Fata stood at 380 as compared to 276 in KP districts.
Experts believe that the main factor behind such high MMRs is that 80 per cent births take place in home where proper healthcare is not possible. They say that literacy, wealth, and location of homes, all are factors that play an important role in improving mothers' health.
“Those women who are more knowledgeable about childbirth, raising children and their own health, due to higher awareness levels in the community can make smarter decisions about birth spacing and other parental challenges,” explained Dr Sadaf, a health worker, emphasizing that education can help create this awareness in society.
Mercy Corps (MC) an international body working for ‘saving mothers in communities’ will be launching a programme to implement advocacy interventions in Balochistan, KP, AJK and Fata – areas that have high maternal mortality rates, lack of access to healthcare because of difficult terrain, and local norms and customs that restrict mobility of women.
These factors put the women at risk of complications during pregnancy while they struggle for survival in poverty and without much education.
The MC, revealed in a recent study that globally, more than 350,000 women die from preventable complications related to pregnancy and childbirth every year. This is a big hurdle in achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) related to mother and child health which focuses on “improving maternal health” by reducing maternal mortality ratios and achieving universal access to reproductive health by 2015.
“The Khwendo Kor will be an implementing partner in Fata and we are hopeful that by the year 2013, we will succeed in raising awareness among tribal women regarding mothers’ and children’s health by involving the local community. We also hope that our efforts will help reduce the adverse effects of low literacy rate on tribal women,” said Dr Saeedur Rahman a Khwendo Kor worker.
But these measures remain band-aid measures at best. Things for the women of tribal regions cannot improve until the local education system is fixed.
When an influential malik was approached in Landi Kotal subdivision of Khyber Agency, he declared that the law and order situation was a lame excuse by the Fata education authorities for their dismal performance.
“What they were doing when there was perfect peace?” he asked, “The fact is that neither tribal elders nor authorities were really concerned about female education and the results are before us.
The tribal woman is in chains today. She does not know her rights and works all day like an animal. We have to change her status. Nobody else will come and do this for us,” he maintained.