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Girls’ education and society in transition

By Ahmed Saleem

It is a universally acknowledged fact that education plays a crucial role in character building of a nation, creating awareness amongst its masses, liberating its population and of course reducing poverty and improving the standard of living in that country. The United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and its Education For All (EFA) programme have put education at the forefront of international development agenda. The credibility of key players in government, civil society and the international development community increasingly are linked to the success of education initiatives. It is in this regard that the universal right to primary education has been affirmed by governments the world over including Pakistan. However, more than 130 million children in the developing countries, who should be attending primary school, do not get this opportunity. More than 80 million of these children are girls. Without education, it is difficult for women to exercise their other rights and achieve their aspirations: adequate livelihoods, negotiating power in marriage, participation in political decision-making, and a fair chance in the modern economy for their children. Education is an investment that stays with a woman throughout her life. It is her basic right which by all means must be assured by all of us.

The situation in our homeland is not very encouraging – almost two-thirds of the children who are not enrolled in primary schools are girls. This is especially pronounced in rural areas where other factors such as employment prospects and mothers’ education are lower, and where girls are more likely to have other responsibilities like housework and child care. In Pakistan, only 17 percent of girls in rural areas complete primary school.

While assuring education for girls and women, it is imperative that we should concentrate on quality education which would help create awareness leading to a healthy, prosperous, enlightened, and moderate society rather than focusing on the numbers of the girls enrolled. Women are the catalyst in our society who not only play a vital role as individuals but also are responsible for our tomorrow. How can we as a nation ignore this agent of change in our society? It is the institution of a mother that can lay the foundation of a forward-looking society provided the mother herself is educated and aware. Education provides girls (future mothers) with opportunities to fulfil their aspirations in life. In addition to helping girls and women fulfil their aspirations and empowering them as individuals, education of girls also has inherent benefits for the society. These benefits include increased economic productivity, improvements in health, lower fertility, increased political participation, and generally more effective investments in the next generation. Some of us may say that there are many other possible ways to achieve these social benefits. But fact of the matter is that girls’ education is the only medium which has recognised and simultaneous impacts on all the social goals of Pakistani society.

There is another angle of looking at girls’ education. Government’s investment in schooling for girls, at the primary, secondary, and higher levels is also beneficial for the government in more ways than professed. When we discuss the benefits of girls’ education, one of them is increased economic productivity. Women with some education are more likely to work in the wage economy and more likely to earn higher wages in comparison to those who are less or not educated. It is evident from the example of other agro-based countries as well our own that education enhances women’s productivity in both farm and non-farm sectors. It empowers women to make more informed choices as far as economic management is concerned. In the urban informal sector, there is a positive and greater association between education and earning.

Another benefit is increased political participation. Educated women are better informed about their rights and more likely to exercise them, making them useful and important links in our formal political system. Our political system would have evolved into a more liberated and moderate system had our women been more actively involved. Women’s role as mother and wife in her daily household activities is and should be patronising. If the ‘patron’ is educated, she can advise on various issues ranging from education to national and international politics. Women may lack action but they are undoubtedly the best counsels.

Improved health is another area which is directly related to the education of women in Pakistan. Eight thousand women die annually during child-bearing process – meaning thereby that 666 women die daily in Pakistan only because of reproductive health problems. And the major cause is illiteracy leading to disempowerment and lack of awareness. At the national level, women’s education is associated with longer life expectancy, lower infant and maternal mortality, and lower fertility. At the family level, women’s education has a major impact on health by increasing access to and use of information, improving use of health services, and increasing the proportion of family income earned by and allocated by women. A study conducted in 13 African countries shows that a 10 percent increase in female literacy leads to a 10 percent decline in child mortality.

There are many reasons why girls are kept out of schools, resulting from a combination of community and national priorities and family factors. Many families, especially those who are poor, cannot afford the costs of school fees, transportation, materials, or clothing for their children to attend schools. In most cases where resources are scarce, poor parents prioritise educating their sons over their daughters. Fee waivers, more subsidies, scholarships, and free books and uniforms can be made available for girls to decrease the direct costs to their parents. This is where the role of the social sector and NGOs comes in – to support the government. Another reason is increased responsibility of young girls at household level. In rural areas it is related to farming and allied works. While in urban centres, it is caring for younger siblings, housework, cooking, etc which most of the time prevents them from attending school or affects their studies.

In rural areas where more than 60% of our population resides, decisions about sending children to school are made by parents, often based on their perceptions of the likely return on their ‘investment’. Parents sometimes perceive that the economic return for educating daughters is lower than for educating sons. Some relatively simple steps can be taken to begin to address these concerns by: (a) helping girls gain access to science and math education; (b) depicting girls and women as income earners in textbooks and media; and (c) promote adult education and income earning opportunities for parents, especially mothers, to increase their willingness to educate their daughters.

Existing educational systems, with high recurring costs and relatively low returns to investment, are far from cost effective. There are significant recurrent costs associated with present under-utilisation and the drop out syndrome. Given the existing investments and the enormous social benefits associated with girls’ education, the question is not how much it will cost to better educate girls, but how much it will cost if we do not do so.

Policies should aim to retain all the girls who start in school – there is space for them. Dropouts imply a heavy cost to the educational system, to girls, and to society. Policies focusing on keeping girls in school might include incentive programmes or consciousness-raising campaigns.

The benefits of education for boys and girls are highest at the primary level. Yet we should not ignore investing in higher and technical education of girls. Skill based technical education should be one of the priorities of the government. Shifting some of these resources from primary education to higher technical education could significantly improve the education status in Pakistan. Significant improvements in the number and quality of schools could also be made by allocating existing resources more efficiently. In some settings, increasing the number of places in schools simply by expanding the existing school system (introduction of double shifts in rural areas) would significantly increase girls’ enrolment.

We must remember that the first instruction in the Qur’aan was to read. This instruction was given to both male and female. Islam attaches a great deal of importance to education. According to Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh): “It is obligatory for every Muslim, male or female, to acquire knowledge (Al-Bayhaqi).

We as a nation need to emphasise today what our religion stressed centuries ago – that women who are looked down upon as mere chattels unfit for education, have been declared by Allah and his messenger as a spiritual equal to man.

Islamic history is full of examples of learned women figures like Hazrat Aisha, Hazrat Fatima, Hazrat Saffiyah and many others who offered guidance to others in educational matters.

Why do we as The Islamic Republic ignore that which our religion truly promotes? We must do some serious soul searching if we really want to grow as a society.

The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance columnist with a background in Development Communications
eepost@yahoo.com

Source: The News

Date:10/25/2004

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