ISLAMABAD: The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to roll back progress on girls’ education in Pakistan, said a new report.

Malala Fund with the help of Education Champion Network commissioned the report “Girls’ education and Covid-19 in Pakistan”. The report highlights the impact of school closures on students across the country with an emphasis on girls’ experiences. It said currently there are 22.8 million out-of-school children in Pakistan. Out of these, 53pc (13.4 million) are girls. The pandemic’s effects on household finances and its economic crisis have the potential to prevent even more girls from completing their education. Girls also had a harder time accessing devices and distance learning during the initial lockdown. “This is unlikely to change now,” said the report.

Covid-19 has widened existing educational inequalities in Pakistan, particularly affecting girls in more marginalised areas and poorer households, making girls most at the risk of dropping out, particularly in interior districts, said the report. During the lockdown, it added, government support for distance learning principally relied on TV, radio and e-learning but majority of the students surveyed did not have access to these. Only 20pc of girls and boys reported to spend time on educational TV and just 3pc on educational radio.

About 60pc of the respondents had smartphones but three quarters of those with access reported only being able to afford data intermittently. Girls were almost 40pc more likely than boys to say that they never had access to a mobile device. Only 1pc of the interviewed students used Edtech for distance learning.

Director Programmes AzCorp Entertainment Madiha Rehman said while there were effective Edtech platforms available in Pakistan, in most of the rural areas accessibility to the internet remained a major challenge.

“In households where there is access, girls are often not allowed to use the internet. There is a need for the government to launch a multi-stakeholder response to ensure the availability and access to high-speed internet across the country. The government also needs to devise disaster management protocols for education systems that foresee school closures,” she said. The report also showed gender disparity in the way boys and girls spent their time during the school closure. About 40pc of girls reported spending time on household chores compared to 11pc boys. Whereas 19pc girls reported spending time on leisure activities such as playing with friends compared to 44pc boys.

The report said that already struggling with limited financing - with budgetary allocations to education accounting for only 2pc of the GDP - the additional demands placed on the education system by Covid-19 have placed an extra strain on resources.

Researchers lamented that far from providing the cash needed to meet the needs for the phased reopening of schools from September, the government had actually rerouted funds. The annual budget announced in June did not include any special grants or emergency provisions for Covid-19 related expenditures for the education sector.

Pakistan Youth Change Advocates Country Director Areebah Shahid said the government needed to introduce an immediate increase in education development budgets and roll back any cuts on the development budget introduced during the fiscal year 2020-21.

She said the government should also adopt a budgetary practice where one third of the education budget is allocated for administrative expenses (utilities, salaries, fuel, maintenance) and two third for development expenditure.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2020

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