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Pakistan's medical schools: where the women rule

Published Apr 19, 2013 11:45am


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—File Photo.

KARACHI: In a lecture hall of one of Pakistan's most prestigious medical schools, a handful of male students sits in the far top corner, clearly outnumbered by the rows and rows of female students listening intently to the doctor lecturing about insulin.

In a country better known for honor killings of women and low literacy rates for girls, Pakistan's medical schools are a reflection of how women's roles are evolving. Women now make up the vast majority of students studying medicine, a gradual change that has come about after a quota favoring male admittance into medical school was lifted in 1991.

The trend is a step forward for women in Pakistan, a largely conservative Muslim country. But there remain obstacles. Many women graduates don't go on to work as doctors, largely because of pressure from family and society to get married and stop working — so much so that there are now concerns over the impact on the country's health care system.

At Dow Medical College in the southern port city of Karachi, the female students said they are adamant they will work.

Standing in the school's courtyard as fellow students — almost all of them women — gathered between classes, Ayesha Sultan described why she wants to become a doctor.

"I wanted to serve humanity, and I believe that I was born for this," said Sultan, who is in her first year. "The women here are really striving hard to get a position, especially in this country where women's discrimination is to the zenith, so I think that's why you find a lot of women here."

For years, a government-imposed quota mandated that 80 per cent of the seats at medical schools went to men and 20 per cent to women.

Then the Supreme Court ruled that the quota was unconstitutional and that admission should be based solely on merit.

Now about 80 to 85 per cent of Pakistan's medical students are women, said Dr. Mirza Ali Azhar, the secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association.

Statistics gathered by The Associated Press show that at medical schools in some deeply conservative areas of the country such as Balochistan in the southwest and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the northwest, men still outnumber women. But in Punjab and Sindh provinces, which turn out the vast bulk of medical students, the women dominate. At Dow, it is currently about 70 per cent women to 30 per cent men.

In comparison, about 47 per cent of medical students in the US are women, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

There are a number of different reasons why men don't make the cut, say students, faculty and medical officials. Medical school takes too long and is too difficult. Boys have more freedom to leave the house than girls, so they have more distractions. Boys want a career path in business or IT that will make them more money and faster, in part because they need to earn money to raise families.

"In our society, girls are working harder. They are just more concentrated on their studies," said Azhar. "Boys also see how hard doctors have to work even after they get their degree. "They do not like to work hard as a matter of fact."

Ammara Khan is fully prepared for the years that it will take to fulfill her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. She decided she wanted to pursue neurosurgery after watching an operation while volunteering at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi.

"It's like an adrenaline rush, and I knew I wanted to be that and nothing else," she said.


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Comments (22) Closed

saqib Apr 19, 2013 08:10am
there should be a contract signed by them to work for at least 5 years after graduation.
sraz45 Apr 19, 2013 08:34am
More power to women, admission to any institution should be purely on merit. If girls do better in the entrance test to a school they should have equal right. Women make equally good physicians all over the world. Male chauvinism should not be allowed to prevail. Kudos to women for joining the medical profession, Pakistan needs lots of doctors.
Huma Apr 19, 2013 09:04am
Women are the future of this country.
Muhammad Bin Naveed Apr 19, 2013 09:40am
Women dominate only in academic circles. You can point the finger at society all you want, but society only suppresses people to a certain extent. They take themselves the rest of the way by not resisting it.
Vaibhav from Mumbai Apr 19, 2013 10:25am
I could not believe that Pakistan earlier had 80% Medical seats reserved for men. It defies any logic. In India, seats are reserved for the weaker, poorer sections and never for men. Did men in Pakistan think earlier that they were weaker then women and hence needed reservation???
Naila Apr 19, 2013 10:47am
TrollyMcTrollton Apr 19, 2013 11:41am
One small problem...Women medical students by and large don't practice regularly. More than half don't join the regular workforce. Considering that medical education is publicly subsidized, this may exacerbate our pre-existing shortfall in the health sector.
vijayIndia Apr 19, 2013 12:05pm
"Then supreme court ruled that quota is unconstitutional and that admission should be made solely on merit" Does this happen in India?
K G Surendran Apr 19, 2013 12:48pm
Good to see female students outnumbering men, the girls should be allowed to practice for which the family and society should give all support.
Farooq Siddiqui Apr 19, 2013 01:00pm
The main reason for male students is low pays for the doctors. The ration of male female students is therefore a reflection of the lower pays in the society for women in general. In a sense it may be better as higher prestige will compensate the women for lower pays. Furthermore, women doctors not practicing medicine is also not bad as highly literate and medically well aware women can boost the awareness of the society as up-bringers of the family as well as propagators of knowledge based values among women and also among society in general.
Zishi Apr 19, 2013 01:22pm
If their husband allow to : )
aaa Apr 19, 2013 01:46pm
Same was the case in our class in 1997 as well. only 60 men above 170 women. Some women are forced to work others are not forced to work. Still believe he ones force to not work are better than the other lot who force them to work and then take all the money.
javed qamer Apr 19, 2013 02:03pm
and then they get married.
Agha Ata (USA) Apr 19, 2013 02:20pm
Women are as good (if not better) as men in every respect! I hope they also come forward as engineers, as officers in the civil service, in business, as diplomats, and politicians in the same way as in medical colleges. (A male feminist)
Irma Apr 19, 2013 02:24pm
Funny thing. When I was in medical school girls used to say there parents want then to become doctors only so they can get good proposals. It wasn't quite untrue. How many women get any kind of freedom to plan their professional lives? Very few. Most don't practice in Pakistan because either they are not allowed by their in-laws or go wherever their parents marry them off to. It's also supposed to be a good bargaining chip for a rishta in the west. It's hardly a sign of progress for women that they are still treated like children with few real choices in life after being so highly educated. It's just a 'respectable' profession with a lot of demand in the rishta market.
Irma Apr 19, 2013 02:27pm
Rhetoric aside, both men and women are the future of this country. The day when Pakistani women start doing a better job of asking to be treated with more respect and as autonomous individuals (especially educated ones), I might believe that.
sacha paki Apr 19, 2013 02:27pm
women couldnt vote in west 50 years ago; women were burned alive in india if her husband dies back in the days ...things happen societies learn and move on...takes time...hence we in pakistan realized the quota is wrong and reversed it...india has highest female abortion rate so that means indians consider female inferior?
Irma Apr 19, 2013 02:28pm
Absolutely agree.
Ali Apr 19, 2013 02:38pm
They finish the studies, get married and stay home. There should be a mandatory work rule of 5 years (three in rural and two in Urban) for every person-male or female after graduation. Those girls who drop off before finishing school should pay back twice the expanse paid on their education with taxpayers money or the laons government borrow from IMF to fund the educational institutes. No free rides.
haariskalan Apr 19, 2013 05:02pm
i agree, that's an excellent idea to increase the health of underprivileged populations within pakistani society
Amjad Wyne Apr 19, 2013 05:06pm
Educated mother, sister, daughter or wife are as much needed by the nation as medical doctors.
Sal Apr 19, 2013 05:27pm
The quota was in place to reduce the number of non-practicing doctor. Many female medical students used to stay home after finishing studies. You don't govt. subsidizing higher education only to find out that ppl availing it will not be utilizing their degree.