“Shall I Feed My Daughter, or Educate Her?” - Barriers to Girls’ Education in Pakistan


Pakistan was described as “among the world’s worst performing countries in education,” at the 2015 Oslo Summit on Education and Development. The new government, elected in July 2018, stated in their manifesto that nearly 22.5 million children are out of school. Girls are particularly affected. Thirty-two percent of primary school age girls are out of school in Pakistan, compared to 21 percent of boys. By grade six, 59 percent of girls are out of school, versus 49 percent of boys. Only 13 percent of girls are still in school by ninth grade. Both boys and girls are missing out on education in unacceptable numbers, but girls are worst affected.

Political instability, disproportionate influence on governance by security forces, repression of civil society and the media, violent insurgency, and escalating ethnic and religious tensions all poison Pakistan’s current social landscape. These forces distract from the government’s obligation to deliver essential services like education—and girls lose out the most.

There are high numbers of out-of-school children, and significant gender disparities in education, across the entire country, but some areas are much worse than others. In Balochistan, the province with the lowest percentage of educated women, as of 2014-15, 81 percent of women had not completed primary school, compared to 52 percent of men. Seventy-five percent of women had never attended school at all, compared to 40 percent of men. According to this data, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had higher rates of education but similarly huge gender disparities. Sindh and Punjab had higher rates of education and somewhat lower gender disparities, but the gender disparities were still 14 to 21 percent.

Across all provinces generation after generation of children, especially girls, are locked out of education—and into poverty. In interviews for this report, girls talked again and again about their desire for education, their wish to “be someone,” and how these dreams had been crushed by being unable to study.

Lack of access to education for girls is part of a broader landscape of gender inequality in Pakistan. The country has one of Asia’s highest rates of maternal mortality. Violence against women and girls—including rape, so-called “honor” killings and violence, acid attacks, domestic violence, forced marriage and child marriage—is a serious problem, and government responses are inadequate. Pakistani activists estimate that there are about 1,000 honor killings every year. Twenty-one percent of females marry as children.

Pakistan’s education system has changed significantly in recent years, responding to an abdication by the government of responsibility to provide, through government schools, an adequate standard of education, compulsory and free of charge, to all children. There has been an explosion of new private schools, largely unregulated, of wildly varying quality. A lack of access to government schools for many poor people has created a booming market for low-cost private schools, which in many areas are the only form of education available to poor families. While attempting to fill a critical gap, these schools may be compromised by poorly qualified and badly paid teachers, idiosyncratic curricula, and a lack of government quality assurance and oversight.

Secondly, there has been a massive increase in the provision of religious education, ranging from formal madrasas to informal arrangements where children study the Quran in the house of a neighbor. Religious schools are often the only type of education available to poor families. They are not, however, an adequate replacement, as they generally do not teach non-religious subjects.

Pakistan’s highly decentralized structure of government means that many decisions regarding education policy are made at the subnational level. The result is a separate planning process in every province, on a different timeline, with varying approaches, levels of effectiveness and commitment to improving access to education for girls. This leads to major differences from one province to the next, including on such basic issues as whether children are charged fees to attend government schools, and how much teachers are paid.

In every province, however, there is a serious gender disparity, a high percentage of both boys and girls who are out of school, and clear flaws in the government’s approach to education.


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