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Catalysts for change

March 13, 2017


PROVINCIAL governments in Pakistan have made efforts to put girls’ education on their agendas; parental attitudes towards girls’ education are changing; and a 2015 report from the Asian Development Bank states that the gender gap at a primary school level has narrowed significantly since 2002, with an increase in girls’ enrolment as a result of an overall increase in net enrolment by 16 per cent. As a country we are doing better at prioritising girls’ education.

However, we struggle with the impact of that education — mediocre as it may be in many instances — as it develops a sense of self. I am a young Pakistani woman and a strategist in the education sector. From where I stand, there is a strong message young women receive from wider society: education is fine we are even glad that you have it, but with that education do not develop too much of a voice, make sure you do not become too visible. This illustrates two key challenges: one is a values-based challenge — if you truly support the education of women you will have to be ready for the pushback that comes from empowered women as they come with a voice, and the second is a simple economic argument — without empowered women Pakistan’s growth and progress is limited.

Women who are educated and know what is possible want more and better for themselves. This causes contention because it changes socio-cultural norms. In large part, we like the idea of educating girls and will commit our time and money to it. However, any teacher will tell you that a good education is not just about literacy and numeracy competencies, it is about the development of a whole human being, one who can both think and debate and have the confidence and courage to act. For anyone, but especially for a woman, an education means the potential to have more control over one’s life.

As girls become increasingly educated they will demand to be key agents of their own narrative.

An assistant professor from rural Pakistan tells me she is engaged to a Muslim American man whom she met almost a decade ago while in the US on a scholarship. When she returned home after earning a Master’s degree, her parents refused to consider this unlikely suitor — however eventually a combination of confidence, strong will (she waited seven years for family approval), and I suspect financial independence, paved a path to a happy engagement. As girls become increasingly educated they will demand to be key agents of their own narrative. While this will shift community dynamics, change is critical — according to the Adolescent and Youth Survey of Pakistan 2001-02 only 3.7pc of girls had any say in who they married.

If we want continuity of progress, we must think as a society about our role in empowering women. We need to both send our girls to school and encourage ambition and choice. One of the highest returns to society comes from investing in women, with impact at an individual, household and community level. In Pakistan, the population of young women is growing rapidly with an estimated 29 million females in the 10-24 age group alone.

A recent piece by the World Bank states that the quickest way to ensure Pakistan’s accelerated growth is to have more women in the workforce, while a report by the IMF says that addressing the gender gap in economic participation could boost Pakistan’s GDP by up to a third — however, currently women only make up a meagre 22pc of the labour force in the formal/documented sector. And despite the male-female wage difference in Pakistan which is an unacceptable 67pc, evidence shows that with the money they earn, women invest almost all of it in their family to educate and feed their children.

Knock-on effects extend to health: a study shows that in Pakistan women with more education place greater emphasis on prenatal visits to doctors, and because of prenatal visits still births declined by almost 10pc for every 1000 live births over a decade; according to a Lancet study, educated women have better health and healthier children, which leads to a reduction in child mortality — more than 4m child deaths have been prevented over the last four decades globally, as a result of women’s education.

If we truly invest in our women there is enormous potential — last year in a local examination board it was the girls that won the top three highest awards overall and had the highest score in each and every discipline; in the wilds of Chitral at a school so far removed that you have to drive four hours on a dirt road to reach it, four teenage girls talk about becoming doctors and fighter pilots; a young girl in rural Sindh is inspired by the female character in the TV show Zindagi Gulzar Hai and now wants to work for the public sector, her father is an educationist who has seen a rise in the number of girls from their district sitting for the CSS exams.

Pakistan’s economy is on an upward trajectory and there is more stability in the country than there has been in years. However, if we want to build on this we must recognise the full potential of women as key stakeholders in this growth. While we still have a long way to go to ensuring access to education for all girls in Pakistan, with the average years of schooling for a poor girl from a rural area being one; it is our responsibility as a society to create a more just and equitable society. And we would do well to remember that while women equipped with voice, confidence, and opportunity will disrupt convention, they are also more likely to educate their children, participate in the labour force, be politically engaged, and act as agents of change integral for a prosperous Pakistan — this is the enormous power of an empowered woman.

The writer is an educationist.

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2017