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In the doldrums

October 20, 2012

GIRLS’ education in Pakistan, particularly in the conflict areas, is today symbolised by a teenaged girl hospitalised after a brazen attack on her by the Taliban. Like Malala Yousufzai, millions of Pakistani girls face formidable obstacles in their path to acquiring an education. If the overall statistics are dismal enough, with 25 million children out of school in this country — the second highest number in the world — then the picture for girls is even bleaker. According to the just-released Education for All Global Monitoring Report, two-thirds of out-of-school children in Pakistan are girls. Only 16 countries fare worse. The report also finds that efforts to address this issue are not keeping pace with those of other countries in the region. While Pakistan has managed to reduce the number of out-of-school girls by 16 per cent, India, Nepal and Bangladesh have done so by over 50 per cent during the same period.

Other recent studies indicate that only 39 per cent of girls complete primary school against 59 per cent of boys. Many of the girls that do so find it difficult to continue with their education for a number of reasons. For one thing, there simply aren’t enough secondary schools for girls, so access is a very real problem. The lack of basic facilities such as drinking water and toilets at many schools, not to mention buildings and boundary walls — particularly important in a conservative society — also contributes to a high dropout rate. Then, girls must contend with a patriarchal mindset that sees their primary roles as that of wife and mother for which education, at least beyond the basics, is considered an unnecessary indulgence.

As though this were not enough, floods for three consecutive years have severely impacted school enrolment in general. While nature’s fury has been more even-handed, the militancy in the country’s north-west has singled out girls’ education with a vengeance. A majority of the schools levelled by extremists in the region were those catering to girls’ education. For example, out of 164 completely destroyed schools in Malakand, the worst affected area in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 104 were girls’ schools. Continuing security threats and bureaucratic delays have meant that little or no reconstruction has taken place. But education cannot be put on the back burner. The government must take its responsibilities towards ensuring education, and specifically gender parity in education, more seriously. In that lies the only long-term salvation for Pakistan. Unfortunately, as of now, it seems the fate of education in this country, especially for girls, will continue to hang in the balance.