Female literacy: Development in reverse


Although the literacy rate in Pakistan has increased over the years but because of high population growth, the absolute number of illiterates has increased. -Photo by White Star
Although the literacy rate in Pakistan has increased over the years but because of high population growth, the absolute number of illiterates has increased. -Photo by White Star

Education is considered a fundamental human right and an essential ingredient for individual as well societal development. Article 37-B of the Constitution of Pakistan, given under the heading ‘Promotion of social justice and removal of social evils’ reads as follows:

The state shall “remove illiteracy and provide free and compulsory secondary education within minimum possible period.”

Recently, under the 18th amendment, a new sub-clause 2-A, pertaining to Right to Education has been added, which reads: “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to 16 years in such manner as may be determined by law.”

In addition to these constitutional provisions, Pakistan is also signatory to many international treaties and conventions which obligate it to provide equal access to education to all of its citizens without any discrimination on the basis of gender, race and ethnicity. Apart from other indirect provisions, two important conventions are worth mentioning: the 1990 Jomtien World Declaration on Education for All (EFA) and the Dakar Framework for Action 2000.

The Jomtien Conference reaffirmed the right of every person to receive education, which satisfies his or her basic learning needs. This declaration announced the six goals of EFA, which are to be achieved by the year 2015. These EFA goals include expanding early childhood care and education; providing free and compulsory primary education for all; promoting learning and life skills for young people and adults; increasing adult literacy by 50 per cent from the level of 1990; achieving gender parity by 2005 and gender equality by 2015; and improving the quality of education for all.

The Dakar Framework of Action (Senegal, 2000) was adopted in which the international community once again recognised illiteracy as a priority issue; it set a number of goals to be achieved by the year 2015. By signing these two documents, the international community, including Pakistan, affirmed their commitment to eradicate illiteracy within a stipulated period of time. It is believed that illiteracy not only hinders the development of individuals’ full potential and their participation in a democratic society, but also has repercussions for the rest of their lives. It affects personal and family life of the individuals, deprives them of the benefits of development and hinders the enjoyment of other human rights.

The Dakar Framework of Action not only announced eight goals, commonly known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) pertaining to various aspects of human life, but also set measurable targets and indicators to monitor progress of the societies in this direction. Out of these goals, two exclusively relate to education.

Goal two pertains to achieving universal primary education, and the relevant target reads “ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling by 2015”. Attainment of this target requires an increase in the net enrolment ratio of children at the primary level and improving the completion rate of primary schooling.

Goal three encourages the international community to promote gender equality and empower women; it reads “eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005 and at all levels by 2015”. Achievement of this target requires improving the ratios of girls to boys in primary, secondary and tertiary education.

Twenty-three years down the road since the declaration of EFA, and just about two years away from the target year 2015, it is high time to assess Pakistan’s achievement and progress in this direction, particularly with reference to universal education and gender parity. According to MDGs, Pakistan was expected to achieve 100pc net primary enrolment rate by 2015 and 100pc completion/survival rate to Grade V by the same year.

In terms of literacy, it was expected to achieve overall 88pc literacy rate for 10+ years aged population. To achieve steady progress in this regard, Pakistan announced three education policies in 1992, 1998 and 2009 and a number of development plans, including National Plan of Action 2001-2015 and Education Sector Reforms (ESR).

These policies and plans set different dates to achieve the millennium development goals. The National Plan of Action on EFA (2001-2015) declared to achieve increase on the following indicators by 2005.

Literacy from 49pc to 60pc:

Net primary enrolment from 66pc to 76pc

Middle school enrolment from 47.5pc to 55pc

Secondary school enrolment from 29.5pc to 40pc

Higher education enrolment from 2pc to 5pc

The Medium Term Development Framework (MTDF) 2005-2010 set the target to achieve 77pc net primary enrolment ratio, 80pc completion/survival rate to Grade V and 77pc overall literacy rate for 10+ years population by 2010. Similarly, in terms of gender equality, Pakistan was expected to achieve full gender equality in primary enrolment ratio as well as youth literacy by the year 2015. The relevant target set under MTDF was to achieve 0.94 Gender Parity Index (GPI) for primary enrolment and 0.85 GPI for youth literacy.

The analysis of available data reveals that progress of Pakistan toward achieving the MDGs is not only unsatisfactory; rather highly disappointing. We are not only far away from achieving these goals by 2015 rather under the current pace of development these goals seem to be totally unachievable.

Although the literacy rate in Pakistan has increased over the years but because of high population growth, the absolute number of illiterates has increased. At present, the literacy rate of 10+ age population as well and the net enrolment rate at the primary level is about 58 and 68pc respectively, with higher gender disparity index in literacy rate than in primary enrolment rate.

The overall literacy rate is higher in Punjab and Sindh, with lowest in Balochistan. Similarly, the lowest literacy and enrolment rates are observed in the female population in Balochistan. The achievement of MDGs requires an expansion of primary education opportunities for children and reducing the drop-out rate. In post-9/11 era, Pakistan received a lot of aid for various sectors, including education. There was a huge campaign of increasing educational opportunities for different age population.

However, the available statistics about primary schooling in Pakistan reveals a negative trend. This is particularly true for female literacy rate in the country. As discussed earlier, to fulfil the commitments made by the government of Pakistan for achieving MDGs, Pakistan was expected to achieve full gender equality in primary enrolment ratio as well as youth literacy by the year 2015.

However, literacy figures recently released by the Unesco Institute for Statistics reveal that absolute number of female illiterates has risen from 31,101,011 in 2005 to 32,106,848 in 2009. That is, about one million females were added to the illiterate lot. On the other hand, it is encouraging to note that there was a decrease of about 0.6 million in the number of male illiterates during the same period. However, this has resulted in an increase in gender disparity.

This is mainly because of the faulty education policies during the previous regime. Available data indicates that during the Musharraf government, instead of expanding primary education in the public sector, the number of primary schools decreased from 159,330 in 1998-99 to 156,400 in 2009-10. His government implemented a devolution plan and accordingly the primary, middle and secondary education was devolved to the district governments. This was done on the pretext that the decentralisation process would enable the district governments to effectively manage the education system. However, the devolution policy resulted in decreasing the enrolment rate, especially in the public-sector schools and closure of about 3,000 schools during the last decade.

Primary schools are the basic unit of education and an important instrument for imparting literacy and basic education. These figures also reveal that despite increase in primary age population, primary schools were not increased proportionately. Instead, higher expansion in middle and secondary schools was achieved. Against about 29pc increase in the primary school population, about 2pc decrease in the number of primary schools has been observed during the same period.

If the same trend is continued, this will be in total defiance of the MDGs and Pakistan will never be able to achieve the MDGs’ targets, particularly in the case of the female population. Taliban are condemned for eroding female schools in Fata, Swat and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but what if the government does the same thing in the name of rationalisation policy or uses other pretext to close public schools? n

The writer, former dean Faculty of Education, University of the Punjab, works as an independent consultant in the field of education.