Family support vital to educating girls

Zubair Torwali

Looking at the stark gender disparity in education in our cultural milieu a number of barriers to education for girls stand out. Most of these barriers are established and strengthened by our ethos and hence internal. Some of them are apparently external. However, the latter are also formed and nourished by the collective cultural attributes of an extreme patriarchal mindset. The former include the gender norms, early marriages, violence at school, female as object of honour and morality whereas the latter include distance to educational institutes, high cost of education, poverty and lack of schools.

Usually girls are supposed to carry out household activities such as fetching the water, taking care of their siblings, helping their mothers in cooking and cleaning; and in some rural settings, looking after the cattle and working in the fields. Because of these gender norms, girls usually do not get the opportunity to attend school as their contributions to the activities of the household are valued more than their personal wellbeing, particularly education.

In majority cases, especially in agrarian communities, girls are married at a very young age. This causes their pulling out of school before entering the higher education; and consequently depriving them of learning life skills. Violence at school on both the sexes are very common in Pakistan. Girls become victims of the violence, discrimination and harassment in the school premises more than the boys; and this forces them to leave schools.

Unfortunately, our society has by now adopted a worldview entrenched in and subject to, a very superficial adherence to religion and culture. Morality has been narrowed down to the physical and moral being of the female only. All the popular narratives regarding morality revolve around the body and acts of femininity. The whole honour of our family life, even of a community or society, now rests on fastening the womenfolk to the trough of a male-imagined self. This has given impetus to the barriers elaborated earlier and, to a great extent, to the ones mentioned below.

The distance between home and school for girls and the lesser number of schools for girls than for boys are effects of the patriarchal mindset operative at a higher level — the policy level — of the governments where men rule mostly. On societal level in general, when higher cost of education comes in, we usually prefer to expend money on education for boys. When poverty forces us to prioritise education for our children we prefer education for boys to education for girls.

The obstacles to girls’ education indicated above can surely be mitigated by the continued support from the family and community. Being the basic unit of a community or society, family can perform a critical role in educating girls in our society. It can influence the overall cultural web knitted around us either at the very grass root level or at the policy level.

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“I did not clip her wings,” said Ziauddin Yousafzai, the proud father of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Laureate from Swat Pakistan. Malala is now a student at Oxford University. At times she, along with many others, was barred from education by the Taliban in Swat. It was support from her family, particularly her father, that enabled Malala to not only chase her dreams but also to become a beacon of hope for many others.

Her father supported her to fly and pursue her dreams; and to let other girls of her lot dream so. She has now become a symbol of change for the girls around the world. If Ziaduddin had ever acted like many of his countrymen, the world would never have had a champion like Malala.

Ms. Nayab is daily seen going to her college accompanied by her father from a remote village in the mountains of Swat Pakistan. She daily travels 30 kilometers to her college along with her father despite the fact that her father is a man of meagre means. Nayab has her father’s support, otherwise hundreds of her age are not as fortunate as her because they do not have fathers as passionate about education as Nayab’s dad is.

Ms. Kainat’s father is a poor labourer who can hardly meet the financial needs of his family. “I could not get education. I cannot afford my daughter to remain ignorant like me,” says Mr Jan, Kainat’s father. Kainat did her matriculation from a private school at a distance of two kilometers from her home. She is now studying at a college far away from her village. Her father lets her continue her higher education.

Ms. Saniya is supported by her brother who works overseas as a labourer. Saniya walks four kilometers over a hill and then 15 kilometers by road to read at her college. Her brother did not clip her wings even though his relatives and other villagers never appreciate him for allowing his adolescent sister to go to college.

None of the great fathers mentioned above is held in high esteem in their particular cultural and religious milieu. Yet they continue to support their daughters in the pursuit of higher education which is an undeniable right they are entitled to.

In our cultural setting girls and women are never independent to decide and choose a life for themselves. A complete emancipation of women is still an ideal all over the world.

Male dominance in our cultural conditions is a reality. As long as male defines the cultural and religious ethos in a society like ours it supporting families to support education for their daughters and sisters becomes a profound need.

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