By Rabia Alavi
In an interview with Al Jazeera last year, the young Pakistani peace activist Malala Yousafzai said, “If this new generation is not given pens, they will be given guns by terrorists.”
Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban on 9 October, is now recovering at a hospital in London. She has defied those who hoped to silence her progressive education campaign and her public criticism of the Taliban – something hardly anyone dares to do. With her initiative still very much in the public eye, this is an opportune moment to focus on ways to tackle the challenges that stand in the way of educating Pakistani girls.
When she was only 11 years old, Malala Yousafzai rose to fame by writing a diary, under the pen-name Gul Makai, for the BBC’s Urdu service. Her column chronicled what it was like to live under the oppressive rule of the Taliban, which in 2008 had taken over her home district, Swat, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, before the Pakistani government ousted them during a 2009 military operation.
Yousafzai’s courage, confidence and understanding that education is imperative for positive change earned her international recognition and admiration. She was given the National Peace Prize in Pakistan in 2011, and was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2011.
Yet much can still be done to realise her dream of education for Pakistani girls. According to the 2009-2010 Pakistan Economic Survey, Pakistan spends only 2.1 per cent of its GDP on education. A new UNESCO report states that in Pakistan, girls make up two-thirds of the children who do not attend school, the second highest rate in the world. It also points out that Pakistan has reduced its spending on education this year.
Poverty is a major cause of gender disparity in education. When poor families feel forced to make a choice between educating their sons or daughters, girls are often left out. A boy is sometimes seen as a better investment because he will eventually provide for the family, while a girl may soon be married off. As such, cultural bias often means that girls cannot access one of their most basic rights.
Especially after the Yousafzai shooting, parents also want to know that their daughters will be safe going to school, especially if they must travel long distances on unsafe routes. NGOs and civil society can step in to help mobilise the community in this regard. Parents, along with civil society, can arrange rides for girls from their neighbourhood to school and back.
In addition, many schools lack facilities for female students. However, in some cases these needs can be met quickly and at a very nominal cost. The United Nations in Pakistan conducted studies to look at what affected girls’ school attendance, and found that the number of girls attending school increases enormously when flush toilets and private bathrooms are installed. Although basic facilities aren’t much discussed when it comes to education, it can sometimes can make all the difference for female students.
Lastly, in some more conservative villages, the tradition is that girls are taught by female educators; female teachers are something of a rarity in Pakistan’s rural communities due to low adult literacy rates and the reluctance of educated women from other areas to travel or live away from home to address this need. To deal with this, the government must be willing to spend more to train and hire female educators, and provide them a safe, appropriate place to live. Like female students, these teachers should be provided with everything necessary for a safe commute to school.
The time for action is now. The Pakistani government, people of Pakistan, and the international community must come together to formulate efficient measures for a more gender-sensitive, culturally viable system of education that caters to both girls and boys. It is now up to us to provide assistance and ensure that Yousafzai’s dream of education for all is realised.
Rabia Alavi is a Pakistani freelance writer currently based in Dubai. She completed her MA degree in Mass Communication at Karachi University and writes for various publications in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.