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Real issue is female education

By Omar R. Quraishi

Participants at a seminar in Karachi the other day discussed curriculum issues in Pakistan, and very rightly, recommended that the portrayal of women in textbooks needed to be changed. As it is, very few female personalities from history are mentioned in the Urdu, English or Pakistan Studies textbooks.

Even those who do get mentioned in these texts usually happen to be the mothers, daughters, wives or sisters of famous men. They and their achievements are usually described in those particular contexts.

Also, most female characters are shown in traditional roles where a woman’s job is to make sure that she does what society – patriarchal and male-dominated – assigns her to do.

Hence, women in these texts appear as the housewife or the housekeeper, the bearer of children, the one who is committed to her husband and devoted to her family. There might be nothing wrong in this per se were it not for the fact that even in a society like Pakistan’s, this is not the only thing that women do.

They do work, in increasing numbers, and not all of them come from high-income backgrounds. The majority comes from the burgeoning urban middle class. While such recommendations are indeed welcome and need to be implemented, the larger problem, as shown in the widening gap between the number of males who are literate and the number of females who have acquired education, needs to be paid perhaps even greater attention.

This is particularly important since there is no disagreement or controversy over the fact that much needs to be done to bring the literacy rate for females, currently at around 30 per cent, at par with that of males, to approximately 60 per cent.

This has to do with the fact that education spending is still pitiable, being at less than two per cent of GDP and that most of it is consumed in salaries and administrative costs.

The literacy gap between men and women was 25 percentage points 25 years ago, and by 2001 it had increased to 29 per cent. Given our population growth rate, though literacy rates have gradually gone up, the number of illiterates too has doubled since 1951. Even worse, the number of illiterate women has tripled.

Education experts are of the view that though the funds set aside for education are not adequate enough for a country with development needs like Pakistan, they could be better utilized and distributed.

However, the fact is that overall spending on education is dismal and should at least be five times more than what it currently is, if we are to really achieve 100 per cent literacy any time soon.

Countries much admired in Pakistan, and whose examples our policymakers and political leaders love to give at the drop of a hat, such as Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand or China were able to perform miracles because they invested considerably, often more than 10 per cent of GDP, on education.

Some might say that the recent emergence of a well-funded proactive Higher Education Commission proves that at least this government has the right approach on the issue.

This is a welcome development but the fact remains that the primary area of concern in education reform has to be primary education and especially schooling for girls. By often hogging the media spotlight, the Higher Education Commission diverts attention from other more important issues and makes people think as if by doing this our education system will come closer to Malaysia’s in 20 years.

Spending on universities and higher education is good but should not come at the expense of primary education especially when the latter faces problems as serious as high dropout rates, especially among girls, poor quality of teaching and so on.

All this makes for sorry reading, given that research has shown that investment in girls’ education can yield much higher returns compared to that in education of boys, especially when the literacy gap between the two is as wide as it is in Pakistan.

Some mostly donor-funded schemes have been launched targeting increased enrolment for girls in some rural districts by giving them incentives like free lunches or free uniforms and textbooks. But a lot more needs to be done.

One serious impediment is the disturbingly high dropout rate for primary school students. According to the government’s Pakistan Integrated Household Survey, in 2001-02, up to a third of all female students were leaving school after completing class VI.

What is equally worrying is that this figure hasn’t really changed since the early 1990s suggesting that if any measures were being taken to address this issue, they were not effective. In fact, the figure for boys drop-outs after class VI – 24.4 per cent for 2001-02 – has also not changed much over the same period.

The main factors associated with the high dropout rate such as corporal punishment (now banned but common in most government schools), an outdated curriculum, mostly uninteresting textbooks and poorly-trained (and often truant) teachers are all problems that the federal and provincial governments have failed to address despite promises, tall claims and rhetoric.

The dropout rate is also closely linked to poverty levels as well since four-fifths of all dropouts happen to be from low-income families. One hopes that the government’s much touted and much-appreciated (especially in foreign capitals) poverty alleviation campaign is able to make some kind of positive impact on this depressing situation.

There are other equally important reasons why the government should ensure that girls do not drop out. For instance, the country’s high fertility rates (among the highest in the world and one reason why the population growth rate is so high) are believed by experts to be strongly linked with the level of female literacy.

A girl who goes to school and does not drop out will have an opportunity to enrol in higher education. With that comes the possibility of her acquiring a decent job and some degree of financial independence.

While this arrangement might not suit the family or her husband, it will certainly be of some benefit to the educated woman. Even otherwise, a literate woman is more likely to have less children and, regardless of her own financial condition, she will make sure that they all get education. Besides, her children are more likely to have better health and nutrition compared to those whose mother is illiterate.

Having more educated women is a boon for the community and the nation. Pakistan’s very low level of female participation in the labour force will get a turnaround from this.

The consequence of that will mean that GDP and standards of living will rise. Besides, recent studies have shown that there is a difference in the way men and women spend household income. When women control the purse strings, they tend to allocate more for the family’s nutrition, education and health than what men may do.

Hence, increase in girls’ enrolment in schools should have a high priority in any government plan whose main aim is economic growth and primary development. The enlightened segments of society, like concerned individuals and private sector NGOs, must realize the importance of female education and play their due role in promoting it.

Unfortunately, our record is not all that admirable on this count. A large section of our intelligentsia is more fond of arm chair lecturing and academic nit picking or attending seminars in luxurious hotels, discussing “strategies”, “action plans” and suggestions that have already been presented, discussed and debated ad nauseum.

Changes in textbooks with a view to portraying women in a more positive light is a laudable move but there can be no substitute for increased spending and focus on increasing girls enrolment in our schools, both by the government and by the private sector.

Reform should not be top-down like in the case of the Higher Education Commission. It needs to begin from the bottom up and can only happen if this issue is addressed with the seriousness it warrants.

Source: Dawn