Asia globalization Human Rights Women

Malala did not Solve Pakistani Women’s Literary Crisis

Nearly a decade following worldwide media coverage of Malala’s activism for women’s right to education, Pakistan’s road to a more accessible & equitable education for female students has remained stagnant, showcasing the varied factors holding Pakistan from forging ahead.

In 2012, the world witnessed fifteen year-old Malala Yousafzai get shot in the face on her way home from school by the Pakistani-Taliban. Her rising popularity in fighting for female education afforded her international support from world leaders and celebrities as she and Pakistani female students continued to endure violence. The globalized outrage resulted in the ratification of the first Right to Education Bill in Pakistan with over 2 million signatures. Asif Ali Zardari, the sitting Pakistani President at the time, pledged to recognize and defend girls’ education as a fundamental right in addition to donating $10 million for the Malala Fund. The Sunni Ittehad Council, Pakistan’s alliance of Islamic political and religious parties, publicly condemned the attack against Malala, declaring Pakistani-Taliban’s course of action un-Islamic. 

Despite these sweeping criticisms for change within Pakistan and international attention paid to the issue, as of 2021, Pakistan continues to hold the second-highest number of out-of-school children worldwide. Approximately 22.8 million children aged 5-16 are not attending school, disproportionately being girls. Of that number, 56% of girls are not attending school in comparison to 44%. The disparity shown reveals cross-generational factors that impede the advancement of women’s education, requiring more than a fleeting global outrage to reform a national system that fails to provide the necessary tools to ensure equal access to education for Pakistani girls.   

Educational Budget: 

The international community often advises the Pakistani government to increase its educational funding but contrary to popular narratives, Pakistan has increased more than 222% of its educational budget from 2010-2018; closely rivaling its military expenditures. Although the 2018 Pakistani government allocated 980 billion Rs towards education, women’s literacy rate remained 47%, while men’s literacy rate was 71%. To account the lack of education amongst women as merely a funding issue is shallow and ultimately unproductive in minimizing the educational gap between both genders. The passive grants of money do not address the underlying issue, which is the lack of priority in assuring women’s education; therefore, accounting for this vast difference of 24%. 

Educational Sector Structure:    

A nation that is a little over half a century old, present-day Pakistan consists of a federation of four provinces: Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh. Since the 2000s, Pakistan has seen a shift in decentralizing the oversight of the educational sector. Former Prime Minister Musharrah (2001-2008) reasoned that shifting the power to provincial & district bureaus would allow those closest to the communities with more insight to determine what action plan fits their education needs the most. His first move began with implementing the Local Government Ordinance (LGO), authorizing the districts below the provinces to become the operational tier of governance. The educational department is led by an Executive District Officer (EDO) who manages the teaching staff, further outlining education standards within the district. As a result of this shift, the district-level staff is powerless in directly answering their own needs, including staffing schools in need of teachers. By 2010, the National Assembly of Pakistan passed the 18th Constitutional Amendment, removing the last shred of accountability between federal oversight of local activities and letting provinces be the sole determinant of education quality. 

The omission of effective federal monitoring of standardized education has left smaller rural populations with no assistance in providing equal education access. At the same time, Pakistan’s rural communities comprise ⅔ of its total population. Each province has its own set of standards and level of commitment in improving female students’ access to education, resulting in provincial disparities across tuition fees, quality levels of educational amenities, and teacher salaries. With a lack of efficacy in the national government, national reformation is harder to achieve, precisely when women’s struggle in accessing education reflects Pakistan’s pervasive issue of gender inequality. 

Bureaucratic Disinterests:

A shortage of government funding toward education is not the cause for lower literacy rates in women; alternatively, it is bureaucratic neglect in ensuring allocated money is spent for its intended use. Provincial bureaucrats forgo creating a comfortable and hygienic learning environment, resulting in severe overcrowding with boys taking priority, discouraging female students from returning. Approximately 37% of these schools lack amenities to support women with no basic sanitation nor toilet facilities, resulting in great difficulty among adolescent girls managing menstrual hygiene for the first time. 

The Head of an NGO in Punjab disclosed to Human Rights Watch, “The problem is the government’s priorities—education is not a priority.” This quote was proven to be true when a randomized survey was conducted in the Jacobabad district in Pakistan’s capital Sindh, unveiling that 70% of schools were closed for unidentifiable reasons. These schools are often referred to as “ghost schools,” with around 25,000 of these buildings sprawled across provinces, and despite being recorded as educational facilities, they are the host of many illegal activities for business profit.

Ghost-schools have materialized from worsening conditions in schools due to the lack of bureaucratic monitoring in schools properly functioning: turning their classrooms empty despite yearly federal funding. Out of the 13,094 schools, the government funded Rs8 billion (US$ 80 million), where over 8,000 ghost schools were uncovered in 2012. Corrupt bureaucrats have pocketed funds allocated by the federal government for schools’ teacher salaries for teachers. As a result, teachers not adequately paid have turned absent for months: discouraging students from attending school. In December of 2015, the Ministry of Federal Education admitted to failing to investigate the issue, convicting no culprits properly. In 2018, the Ministry of Education under the Directorate General Of Basic Education Community Schools (BECS) exposed over 2000 ghost schools in operation. 

These officials, the very ones employed to safeguard students’ access to education, financially benefited the most from the poor maintenance of schools. Likewise, thousands of ghost teachers have drained millions of rupees from drawing salaries from these schools. Ghost schools have facilitated illegal activities, including the trades of armories and drugs, eventually becoming the sanctuary of multiple criminal gang bases. The impact of ghost schools on all children regardless of gender, directly exhibits the abysmal efforts to prioritize children’s education, let alone addressing girls’ access to education.

As mentioned in the context, a few weeks following Malala’s assault, Pakistan’s National Assembly unanimously ratified the “Right to Free and Compulsory Education Bill,” promising free education for all Pakistani children aged 5-16. Since 2012, the enrollment rate among primary school-aged children has increased, with an 11% discrepancy in enrollment rate between both genders. Nevertheless, the rise in enrollment in recent years and the absence of a systematic effort to ensure student retention unfairly disadvantages female students. When primary students drop out of school, no government agency checks up with the child to assess their situation. This negligence unfolds at the high school level, where the public sector records 61% of students are boys, in contrast to only 39% of students being girls.

Cultural Circumstances: 

Beyond the inaction within the educational system, external factors impede Pakistani women from pursuing a formal education, including child marriage, child labor due to poverty, and gender-based attacks. Child labor is often in the form of traditionally female household chores, including sewing, embroidery, and domestic cleaning, effectively removing girls from their classes. The Education Bill clearly states that employers of child labor are fined upwards of 50,000 rupees with six months imprisonment. However, the government has taken no efforts to prevent child labor, with the International Labour Organization recording that a rising 33 percent among children aged 15 to 17 are in paid employment. With 25% of Pakistanis living under the poverty line, impoverished communities have more significant hurdles in seeking an education. 

One in every five Pakistani girls marries before 18, with child brides more likely to leave school, live in poverty, and be victims of domestic violence. According to an NGO gender expert, the reality is that “There’s a view that there’s no need to educate girls because they will be married.” Taliban-occupied regions continuously experience attacks on their schools with the Taliban’s restrictive view of women’s rights. In August of 2018, the Taliban burned over ten schools in the Diamer district of the Gilgit-Baltistan region, with over half of these schools built explicitly for female students. Most notably, women’s education activist Malala was severely attacked in her district Swat Valley in the early morning of October. However, she is only one out of many gender-based violence cases in pursuit of education. Despite Pakistani’s federal government’s public denouncement, it has yet to overtly ban military agendas from safeguarding female students’ safety when obtaining their education. 

Recent Efforts: 

Upon current Prime Minister Imran Khan’s election in 2018, he has vowed to institute significant reforms to the education system, highlighting his support of girls’ access to education: “We will prioritize establishment and up-gradation of girls’ schools and providing stipends to girls and women for continuing their education.” He has ordered a National Curriculum Council, in place to create uniform schooling standards in the fragmented educational system. Regardless of this federal initiative, it is on the same government’s responsibility to stress that these standards are met in every provincial region. These standards can include the employment of competent, qualified teachers who follow the national curriculum outlined. From there, can the Pakistani government target efforts to advance women’s access to education. The federal government can assist in leading provincial governments into devising viable solutions to improve school retention rates amongst female students in primary and secondary schools. Each province can establish quotas in reducing the gender-based disparity in school enrollment; with federal coordination, it is met each term. Community-based classes in rural areas can be developed with schools specifically assisting impoverished communities by considering both responsibilities students face: providing financial support for their families and pursuing an education. 

All about Bread and Water:

“It is all about bread and water for the politicians,” is an Urdu saying referencing the corrupt nature of politicians’ empty promises hanging over Pakistan’s ability to progress educationally. There have been countless Education Ministers appointed, speeches made vowing to create a more equitable education plan. The national education budget allocation has risen exponentially since, where they now rival military expenditures. Yet, we have to understand that generational, cultural habits will not be eradicated within a Prime Minister’s time in office; change will not be sudden. Nonetheless, there should be an acknowledgment of a stagnant collective effort to improve the status quo. Taliban’s weight on female education does not embody the entirety of Pakistan, nor does it allow Pakistan to remain complicit. Less than a decade ago, we witnessed a 15-year-old nearly fatally injured for her yearning to go to school, symbolizing the extent to which socio-political barriers prevent women from receiving an education. Comparable to literacy’s role in determining a society’s quality of life, blockage in women’s access to education expresses itself in all steps of a young woman’s life, showcasing the multilayered approach we must take when addressing the issue. 
As Malala once said, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” Her words of insight have captured global eyes. Through the Malala Fund, her advocacy has allowed the direct construction of new schools designated for female students across Pakistan. However, she has only flipped the book open for the Pakistani administration to urgently pencil in their commitment in supporting female students’ road to education.

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By Lisa Nguyen

Lisa Nguyen is pursuing an associate’s degree in Public Policy, Law & Society at San Mateo College with hope of transferring to a UC. She grew up in Montréal, Canada which shaped her interests in global movements, with special inspiration from popular teenage activists including Nadia Murad & Malala Yousafzai.

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