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12 Million Girls Out Of School: Fixing This Should Be Top Priority

Education in Pakistan is a fundamental right of every citizen, according to article thirty-seven of the Constitution of Pakistan but stark gender discrepancies exist in the education sector. Pakistan has been described as “among the world’s worst-performing countries in education,” at the 2015 Oslo Summit on Education and Development. The new government, elected in July 2018, noted in its manifesto that nearly 22.5 million children are out of school. Girls are particularly affected. Thirty-two percent of primary-school-age girls are out of school in Pakistan, compared to 21 percent of boys. By grade six, 59 percent of girls are out of school, versus 49 percent of boys. Only 13 percent of girls are still in school by ninth grade. Both boys and girls are missing out on education in unacceptable numbers, but girls are disproportionately affected.

Across all provinces, generation after generation of children – especially girls – are locked out of education and into poverty. Girls aspire for education, but their dreams are crushed. Lack of access to education for girls is part of a broader landscape of gender inequality in Pakistan. The country has one of Asia’s highest rates of maternal mortality. Violence against women and girls including rape, so-called “honor” killings and violence, acid attacks, domestic violence, forced marriage, and child marriage is a serious problem, and government responses are inadequate. Pakistani activists estimate that there are about 1,000 honor killings every year. Twenty-one percent of females marry as children.

A recent study, “Girls’ Education & COVID-19 in Pakistan,” suggests that girls’ access to formal education in Pakistan is further expected to regress as a result of the steep decline in household incomes. With many households still struggling with the financial toll experienced during the initial lockdown phase, many girls of school-going age are expected to either enter labor to supplement their household incomes or simply be withheld from returning to school to curtail household expenses.

Pakistan has made significant progress for girls’ education in the last decade but 12 million girls are out of school, with only 13% of girls reaching grade nine. Even with the demand for girls’ education increasing across the country, girls face more barriers to their education than boys due to gendered social norms. Furthermore, there are not enough free, quality schools with female teachers to adequately educate Pakistan’s girls. The lack of girls’ secondary schools and poor quality of education that does not promise economic returns puts pressure on families to marry their daughters off at an early age or send them into domestic or paid labor.

If we look at it from different angles, there is good news as well that girls in Pakistan are high achievers in academics and are assuming roles of greater responsibility in various sectors, including those which were once considered for boys only. Malala Yusuf Zai, Arfa Karim, and many others are the proud examples for their country. It is incumbent upon the government and civil society organizations to provide them an environment that is conducive for their personal and professional development as well as equal employment opportunities.

Furthermore, girls are getting more recognition as a potential force in the process of national development. More girls are attending and completing school, more are gaining the skills they need to excel in life and fewer are getting married or becoming mothers while still children. However, despite progress, girls still learn less, end up earning less, and have fewer assets and opportunities. A lot more needs to be done to bring girls at par with boys.

The government needs to strengthen provincial education systems’ progress toward achieving parity between girls and boys and universal primary and secondary education for all children, by requiring provinces to provide accurate data on girls’ education, monitoring enrolment and attendance by girls, and setting targets in each province.

The federal government’s role is assisting provincial governments in the provision of education, to end gender disparities in all provinces. The federal government must work with provincial governments to improve the quality of government schools as well as private schools.

Government should raise the national minimum age of marriage to 18 with no exceptions and develop and implement a national action plan to end child marriage, to end all child marriage by 2030, as per Sustainable Development Goal target 5.3.

Our country can, and should, fix its school system. The government should invest more resources in education and use those resources to address gender disparities and ensure that all children, boys, and girls have access to, and attend high-quality primary and secondary education. The future of the country depends on it.

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Naya Daur