THERE are two prevailing mindsets that could account for the staggered growth of female education in Pakistan: that which thinks of education as an asset, and the other which views it as a threat. The crux of the issue of slow-to-improve gender disparity in our education system is that Pakistanis appear to have both mindsets at the same time.

Less than a decade ago, a child’s gender significantly accounted for unequal opportunities in primary education, even more so in the case of secondary education in Pakistan. Today, surveys show more than eight out of 10 Pakistanis say that education is equally important for boys and girls; very few think that it is more important for boys than girls or the other way round.

Still, Pakistan, being a part of the global Education For All (EFA) movement, has not been able to achieve a key measurable education goal: eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education no later than 2015.

Female enrolment is up but there can still be socio-cultural hurdles.

This is so despite efforts made by government institutions to improve inclusivity in education, such as the Female Secondary School Stipend Programme initiated in Punjab in 2004, the Stipend Programme for Secondary School Females in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that was started in 2006, and the 2016 policy to end gender segregation in public schools in Balochistan to allow girls access to higher quality boys’ schools.

These examples were actions relevant to the National Education Policy, and the Education Sector Reforms. They are also aligned with commitments made by the government to EFA goals. A case cannot be made that there is no institutional and reform-based support for facilitating educational access for females.

Though there has been top-down support for equity in education, there is a lack of bottom-up support. This results in a non-holistic approach that has only partially delivered on its promises. This schism is not immediately apparent; one can only start to make sense of it by looking at the following fact: according to a 2015 Asian Development Bank report, female enrolment is up as the net enrolment ratio improved by 16pc in recent years. However, only a quarter of our labour force is female. Compared to the region and the world, Pakistan has a dismal gender gap when it comes to economic participation and opportunity for females.

Even though there may be less resistance to how many girls go to school, there is another kind of resistance related to what girls do after they get educated. This was apparent in the case of focus groups with over 200 parents and teachers of children enrolled in low-cost private schools in rural and urban north Punjab in late 2016. I was directly involved in these discussions as programme manager for the ongoing Learning and Achievement in Pakistan Schools, or LEAPS. The focus groups revealed that many parents viewed girls’ education as a form of protection and expected social and financial clout for their daughters as the natural consequence of educating them.

Surprisingly, most even expected higher returns when it came to investing in a daughter’s education as compared to a son’s education — both in social and financial terms. One got to hear comments such as ‘we should spend more on our daughters as we will get a higher return on our investment. She will go to college and study ... she will pass exams. When we spend more on our son, we will spend more but he will fail’. And ‘an educated girl is better able to handle issues with her in-laws’. This is a new (and encouraging) concept.

Yet, these same determined and financially invested parents also agreed with the participating female teachers on girls discontinuing their work after getting married if they could not obtain permission from their in-laws to carry on. Perhaps, in their minds, socio-cultural norms take precedence over the financial and social freedom afforded by girls’ education.

The two mindsets accounting for the staggered growth of education for females are discernible at this point, with one propelling such education forward and the other being more concerned about all this getting out of hand. Pakistanis, it seems, are grappling with how to fuse the two to progress, and also with how to sidestep whatever is deemed inconvenient in socio-cultural terms.

Pakistan’s educated female labour force is slowly growing across socioeconomic groups, and it would be a missed economic opportunity if it is not accompanied by support in the form of socio-cultural acceptance. One can only hope that as we get more educated, the fear of education also becomes a remnant of the past.

The writer works at the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan. The views expressed are her own.

Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2017



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