THE ILO’s finding that the illiteracy rate among adult Pakistani women is over 25 percentage points higher than that of the adult male population is not really surprising. Statistics show that gender inequality in Pakistan is a given fact – be it in health, education, employment or any other area of national life. Unfortunately, this has been known for a long time, but no concerted efforts have been made to address this concern. Primarily because ours is a patriarchal society, there is an ingrained perception of women being naturally inferior in status to men. To be sure, gender-sensitive policies are officially claimed to be the guiding principle – they are enshrined in the millennium development goals which the government has signed. But moves to enhance women’s reproductive health facilities, ensure their political empowerment in the assemblies, and to increase the enrolment of girls in schools do not go far enough. They have helped only in a small way to decrease the socio-economic gap between the two sexes.
As long as women and girls are not accepted as individuals in their own right, and are seen merely as wives, mothers and daughters, and as long as laws and traditions continue to discriminate against them, there is little chance of their catching up with the men. It is this non-acceptance of women as equal beings that has permeated all walks of life, as in the case of education. However, in this sector, things could be looking up slightly for the female population, not so much because there is greater awareness of its right to be part of the mainstream as the need to harness its economic potential that can be augmented by proper schooling. For instance, parents in many rural areas today are no longer averse to sending their daughters to school. Many years ago this would have been unthinkable for cultural constraints. Now that attitudes are changing, it is a pity that the government has not capitalised on that. Quite often girls are not being educated due to the inaccessibility of schools. Which parent would want to send their daughter to a remote school exposing her to the dangers that lurk in the way? In other cases, poor toilet facilities at school keep the girls from attending.
Unfortunately, these drawbacks have not led parents to demand strongly enough that better educational facilities nearer their homes be provided to their children. This betrays a general lack of awareness of education being the basic right of every child. Moreover, despite the growing realisation of the obvious advantages of education, pockets of deep conservatism still exist around the country, more specifically in the NWFP and Balochistan. In the latter case, the stronghold of the feudal system, with all its attendant evils, has made education a pipedream – especially so for women. In this province, the literacy rate of the female population is a mere 19 per cent, much below the national average. It is keeping this picture in mind that the government must set about improving educational facilities for girls. However, such an action would only be cosmetic unless accompanied by a strong effort to change existing mindsets that currently see women as unequal to men.