Girls need pens more than they need rolling pins

Aisha Sarwari

Schools are not places to develop learning outcomes in Pakistan. Rather, they are political tools. There is graft during teacher induction, neglect during knowledge transfer; pedagogical understanding is non-existent and a whole lot of misspending happens by the provincial governments. Public school children suffer the most even after education is a constitutional right for all – just 3% graduate beyond grade 12. When it comes to girls sadly, even fewer girls make it beyond the final year. Girls from poor families, after grade 9, fizzle out like salt on snails. This corresponds to the time they enter pre-pubescent and pubescent ages.

Whereas prematurely sexualizing young girls is a societal norm in Pakistan’s patriarchal setup, it is not the only factor for low girls’ enrolment in schools. The country’s enrolment gender gap is the widest in South Asia, only after Afghanistan. We many not have had the Taliban govern us directly, but they might as well have by a mindset proxy – by perpetuating the belief that women in the economy are worse off than women on the kitchen hearth, armed with rolling pins.

In my yearlong work in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) education department this year, I realised this archaic thinking is not what gets most fathers to keep their daughters indoors. It was the fact that facilities and services at schools did not measure up and did not protect their daughters from anti-women perceptions. For a father to send his daughter to school, he had to battle patriarchy himself and, to do that, there has to be some level of certainty that his daughter would grow up to crush it. Not be its victim.

Pakistanis even in remote and underserved areas are progressive and pro-education. It is the state that perpetrates a gender bias and seeps it into policy, perception as well as into bricks and mortar.

I wouldn’t blame fathers for not being terribly convinced about the value of girls’ education in public schools.

How can parents trust the system that keeps girls under-resourced deliberately in these schools? The education reforms organisation, Alif Ailaan, since 2013 quantifies exactly why: about 12 million of 5-16 year old girls are out of school. There are 2,585 girls’ government schools that do not have a building at all. Girls sit and learn outdoors under the elements. Almost 17,483 school buildings are not safe enough for girls and are down right dangerous for girls to be in.

Take a snapshot of callous disregard for girl’s schools: There is no toilet in 14% of schools; no water in 17%; no boundary wall in 12% and no electricity in 23% of them. These girls are considered no assets by the state. Seemingly, even the country’s criminals have better services in prisons.

There are only 36% schools for girls Pakistan-wide. The gender parity index for enrolment ratios gets even worse to 0.81 at the secondary level. Older girls are even less valued than younger ones.

Ali Jan Maqsood
Ghost schools of Balochistan
The village has only one high school with three teachers

There is a tremendous amount of research, content and philosophical persuasions available to increase girl child education. There is even a very compelling business case that stipulates that a mere 1% increase in female education; female labor force participation; education expenditure and fertility rate causes 96% increase in GDP of Pakistan.

Age 10 and above, 48% of females are literate in Pakistan whereas 70% males are literate. The contrast is so stark there ought to be an inquiry on where all the women and their collective potential went? Making rounder chappatis perhaps? A woman who cannot sign her name or count her grocery money at a time when the rest of the world has bionic arms and plans to launch Interplanetary Internet, is a terrible travesty of humanity. The girl child cannot be merely left behind because of value systems; they can only be left this far behind when there is a systematic effort to hate them. Marginalise them. Disable them. Disadvantage them.

Most girls in Pakistan have more than one disadvantage: minority religious status; minority ethic status; poverty; location disadvantage; physical disability and even something sadly as avoidable as malnutrition.

A lot of the bias the school system perpetrates is not limited to bad infrastructure and neglect for girls. It comes in the lethal form of teacher’s biases. Girls don’t do well because they are not expected to do well. They lag behind in math and science because they are stereotyped into barely passing only non-Science subjects. This psychological warfare on them is just as damning.

Elections are round the corner, yet the girl child is a tossed aside piece of spinach from a meaty sandwich. She is not on the agenda. The only people who can change this and give the girl child a voice in the elections are women lawmakers who have personally tasted dirt and gender bias in education. We need to bring them to the forefront. Also those women who vote can give the girl child a voice and demand that political parties prioritise pro-women policies, not tokens, but transformative changes that are inter-generational. Lastly, the people who can truly bring a voice of the missing girls in schools are the men who are at the helm. Righteousness, the business case, pity, or whatever the motivation, we urge a pro-girls change. Girls deserve to pick the pen.

The writer is a columnist and co-founder of the Women’s Advancement Hub

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