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Let’s Get Serious About Girls’ Education in Pakistan

Most girls in Pakistan aspire to “be someone.” They desire education and think of it as a means of breaking free from the cycles of poverty and gender discrimination that persist in Pakistan. Most of them consider their dreams to be crushed because they are unable to further their education or gain any education at all.

Madison Singh |

Photo from Flickr: Girls in school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan

“Education is one of the best ways to improve society,” said Shaheer Malik, a senior at Yale from Pakistan. Education as an entirety is an ongoing problem in Pakistan for boys and especially for girls. In fact, 32 percent of primary school-aged Pakistani girls are not in school, compared to 21 percent of boys. Furthermore, By ninth grade, only 13 percent of girls are still in school.

The Human Rights Watch conducted 209 interviews of Pakistani girls and found that most girls aspired to “be someone.” They desired education and thought of it as a means of breaking free from the cycles of poverty and gender discrimination that persist in Pakistan. Most of them considered their dreams to be crushed because they were unable to further their education or gain any education at all. Ayla Kahn, a junior from Karachi, agreed that education is a way “for people to achieve liberation [against] ways of oppression.”

Given the immense value of education in girls’ futures, what is stopping it from succeeding in Pakistan? There are just not enough government schools to accommodate the number of girls trying to get an education. In fact, Pakistan saw a 10 percent decrease in public primary schools from 2011 to 2016. Almost 40 percent of the schools in Pakistan are private. The costs of private education and resources were the first barriers that came to mind for Malik, who received a scholarship for high school which helped him “get through what was really expensive.” Kahn went to an elite private school in Karachi. She noted that the school was co-ed and not considered “socioeconomically diverse.” Clearly, for children living in poverty, an elite private education is out of reach.

Since there are not enough public schools and elite private schools are prohibitively expensive for most children in Pakistan, many students turn to low-cost private schools. Some benefits are that these schools are located close to the communities they serve, are conducive for female students to learn, and have better student performance than public schools. However, while these types of schools are making improvements, they still have limited enterprise financial resources and limited investment in education. Meera Shoaib, a sophomore whose family is from Pakistan, stated that, “Even if it is possible for families to send their kids to school, then the teachers themselves are not well educated. This shows a horrible circulatory system.” Even if families overcome barriers of cost and access to education, Shoaib noted that there are still problems within the school system.

Another significant barrier to girls’ education is the pervasive gender division. As a student in Pakistan, Malik attended a co-ed school until third-grade. He continued his education at an all-boys school as there were “very few co-ed middle and high schools because there tends to be pressure from various forces to keep girls and boys separated in education.” These forces stem from cultural norms where it is common for girls to have to ask to stay after school for extracurriculars or to stay up late to do homework. If girls are permitted to leave the house, they are usually expected to be accompanied by a male. Since girls have to be permitted to attend school and other academic events, they are put at a disadvantage because their male counterparts do not face these obstacles. Malik explained that his sister’s all girls school “stressed ways to act proper and things that were meant to mold your character.” Shoaib noted ways in which gender roles affected academics outside of the classroom as well. She said she often saw female adolescents working in people’s houses as domestic help. According to UNESCO, “if educating women and girls costs the family money (fees, cost of uniforms, transport costs, etc.) and if a girl’s or woman’s labour is required at home (i.e. if there is a high opportunity cost for educating girls and women) there is little incentive to educate them.” Due to cultural norms and financial need for girls to provide domestic help, many families do not send girls to school in the first place.

Despite these barriers, there have been many efforts to help girls receive an education. Malala Yousafzai, an advocate for female education in Pakistan and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has been making dramatic improvements through the Malala Fund. The fund has extended outreach to Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, as well as to Syrian refugee camps. In Pakistan, the fund focuses on helping provide free quality education to former domestic workers, emotional and educational support to those who have been internally displaced, school supplies, and repairs to classrooms. The Citizens Foundation and The Central Asia Institute are also among the most powerful organizations that focus on combating poverty and improving girls’ literacy. The Kashf Foundation works to provide entrepreneurial resources for girls as well. There are many more groups and leaders joining in on this conversation and making a difference for girls’ educational success in Pakistan. Shoaib’s family, for instance, has been active in advancing education: her parents work with an organization to build schools in rural parts of Pakistan and have successfully built two schools.

Through these efforts, organizations and individuals have made tangible differences in the lives of many Pakistani girls. They show that improvements can be and are being made. But without more awareness and advocacy, the barriers will persist. Large numbers of Pakistani girls will continue to struggle to make a better life for themselves and, just as importantly, to fight back against oppression. We need to come together to continue to break down barriers so more girls’ dreams can be realized—that much is clear. This is not to say that there are easy answers, of course—there rarely are, when the problem is so pervasive and its roots so ingrained—but that’s what makes it all the more important for us to get serious about finding a solution.


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