A report released by an advocacy group, Plan International, in New York as the UN marked its first International Day of the Girl, laments that one in three girls in the world is denied education, which is a major violation of rights and a huge waste of young potential. Ironically, the report, focusing on 39 million girls aged between 11 and 15, came out the day 14-year-old Pakistani girl, Malala, lay in a hospital bed struggling for her life after being shot for standing up against the Taliban’s campaign to keep girls out of school.
The confidence she gained from education at such young age to defy the Taliban and engage the world through a diary she wrote for the BBC during the Taliban’s siege of Swat, has turned her into a symbol of resistance nation-wide against violent extremists and their retrogressive agenda that includes keeping women down.
Sadly education, the building block of progress and development, has always been a low priority issue in this country despite the oft-repeated resolve by successive governments to achieve hundred percent literacy by this or that year. At one point, the timeline was 2000, but then the goalpost has kept shifting.
As things stand, as per official claims, the overall literacy rate in Pakistan is 58 percent – measured on the universally accepted functional literacy standard, it would be far less. No prizes for guessing right that girls’ education lags far behind boys’: male literacy rate is 69 percent and that of girls 45 percent. And about 7 million children aged 5-9 years are not enrolled in any school. Some of them may still have a chance to acquire education, but as many as 30 million children aged 10-16 years have no such possibility since they have no access to school.
Girls, of course, are at a bigger disadvantage in all these situations as that they also have to face social and cultural barriers in the name of either religion or tradition. Those living in the tribal region, even in settled areas such as Swat – where the brave Malala comes from – face these barriers in their worst forms. In fact, conditions in the other three provinces’ rural hinterlands are not any better.
Education, needless to say, opens up all kinds of opportunities for self-improvement, creative expression, and healthier life. As the Plan International report points out “an educated girl is less vulnerable to violence, less likely to marry and have children when still a child herself, and more likely to be literate and healthy into adulthood – as are her own children.”
She is also likely to be better equipped to make economic contribution both to family and national life, and have awareness about communicable diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis and the need to adopt preventive measures. There clearly is a linkage between girls’ education and the fight against poverty and disease. They must have greater, and equal, access to schools.