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Dismal numbers

By: Bina Shah

IN my previous article (‘On building character’, Oct 1, 2012) on these pages, I mentioned that I was involved with an education project in Sindh that targets primary school-age children who are currently out of school.

Our project, Education for Sindh, aims to bring these children into the classroom using a combination of grants to intermediary schools and a voucher programme for the most disadvantaged of families in selected districts of urban Karachi and rural Sindh.

Some sobering facts need to be mentioned here: currently, seven million children in Pakistan are not in school, including 2.3 million between the ages of five to nine. Of the total, 2.5 million are in Karachi alone. The numbers for all of Sindh are equally dismal: our primary schools have only a 53 per cent enrolment rate, and only half these children complete their primary school education, according to the British government’s Department for International Development.

Not only are these numbers dismal in and of themselves, but they signal disaster for the future of Sindh’s economy, stability and security, because the lack of an educated workforce means higher unemployment, less social cohesion, and more and more young people drawn towards extremism as the answer to their woes.

If this situation isn’t bad enough, imagine how much worse the numbers look for Sindh’s (and Pakistan’s) girls. Only 40 per cent of the country’s girls under the age of 15 are literate, according to the United Nations. Only 50 per cent of them are enrolled in school. These girls who struggle to get an education face a myriad of challenges: social opposition, physical obstacles, a lack of facilities (including no toilets), and as so sharply illustrated by the shooting of Malala Yousufzai, the wrath of militant extremists who do not believe in girls’ education.

A lot of attention has been given over the years to the particular risks for girls in the tribal areas of northern Pakistan, but even in the villages of Sindh, conservative attitudes and traditions as constricting as the ones encountered by their counterparts in the north discourage countless Sindhi girls from pursuing an education.

Government mismanagement of both policy and funds has deprived Sindh’s girls of education by not ensuring that they have access to schools near their communities or that there are enough female teachers to teach them. Poverty remains the main reason, however, that Sindhi girls drop out of school at early ages, and the lives that they lead without education are not lives that anyone could envy.

It seems amazing that we have to keep going over the reasons, in this modern time, why girls’ education is vital. But there are still people in Pakistan who aren’t convinced that it is. A simple question needs to be posed to them: does it make sense to only educate half the nation?

Our country suffers from huge disparities on every level: socioeconomic, inter- and intra-provincial and ethnic. But gender disparity is the one that destroys a nation quicker than any of the others.

Denying girls an education creates a slave class where these girls grow up into women who are totally dependent on men for not just their economic survival, but for their access to all levels of functioning society.

Illiterate women don’t know how to read, they don’t know how to vote, they don’t know how to educate their children. But they also don’t know how to obtain an ID card, a passport, any other official documentation that proves they exist. They have no sense of their own value and worth as citizens, or as human beings. By keeping girls illiterate, or barely literate, you might as well keep them in prison.

On the other hand, a society where girls are educated will see skyrocketing levels of economic growth and development, which translates into a more advanced society and nation.

According to the World Bank’s studies on the importance of girls’ education, countries where girls are highly educated gain gender equality — which results in a more educated workforce, an efficient allocation of labour, greater productivity, and higher levels of economic development.

For Pakistan, it makes huge economic sense to make educating our girls a high priority. We have to think of girls’ education not as a right, or a privilege (though it is both, and so much more), but as a sound economic investment in the future of the country.

Going back to the project, we have determined that girls’ education is a priority; to this end, we’ve set some standards to promote it. In the voucher system, we will insist that any family who wants to participate must include a daughter in the scheme, as well as their sons.

In the part of the programme where we will support a school, we will insist that they build proper toilet facilities for girls as well as their teachers, who will most likely be women. We will also insist on adequate security and safety for the girls once they are on the school premises. These may seem like small adjustments, but they are practical steps to encouraging girls onto the path of education. And in a country like Pakistan, where we’re running on negative time, every small step on the path is in fact a giant leap for womankind.