Our education system has many problems and these have been well documented and researched in education literature in the country and they are well known. We do not have enough schools, facilities are poor, educational standards, in most public schools and even in majority of low fee private schools, are low, our state does not accord education the priority it deserves and does not spend enough on education sector, teachers are poorly compensated and poorly incentivized and motivated, and the list continues.
Most of the problems mentioned above are generic to the system and affect both genders. But it is true that girls, in our education system, are affected differentially too. Too many girls still do not go to school in Pakistan, the gender gap continues to be large, though a bit narrower, and though we have had some success in enrolling girls in primary schools, too many of them do not finish or do not go on to middle schools or higher education. There are strong geographical, rural-urban, and income based disparities too. Thus governance issues, with respect to girls, needs special attention.
There will always be parents who feel that the actual cost, compared to the benefit, of getting girls educated is too high or the opportunity cost of having girls attend school, when they could be doing housework or looking after younger siblings or working in the fields, is just too high. Some of these issues could get resolved with economic prosperity and growth, creation of job opportunities and opening up of labour markets. But some of these issues, and some cultural preference issues (of keeping girls away from employment markets) might remain. But this is not the main issue holding female education back. It is not the case we have empty schools and classrooms waiting for girls who are not showing up. Our problem is still one of ensuring effective, efficient and equity based supply in the face of significant unmet demand.
The above mentioned mainly supply side problems of our education system are difficult to solve. But without addressing them it is hard to see how we can have universal education for all girls in Pakistan.
There are clear reasons why girls might not be in school, might drop out, or might not be able to transition to the next level of education, from primary to middle school, and from middle to high school. Some of these are mentioned below:
i) If the school is too far away, and/or girls do not have secure means of transport, there will be dropouts or lack of enrollment. There are three different issues. If the school is too far away, there will be a cost to transportation. There will also be the issue of security of transportation, and security of the environment that has to be travelled through to get to the school. If all/any of the elements impose a high cost on the parents, or mean compromising on the security of the child significantly, parents are not going to risk the safety of their children for education and they will not be able to afford too high a cost too. Primary schools are much more in number than middle or high schools. Primary school might be in the same village while the middle school might happen to be in a nearby village and high school even further out. Enrollment will decline accordingly, directly related to distance, to alien-ness of environment and to lack of security in travel.
ii) If the school does not have a secure environment, like a proper boundary wall, a gate and some guarantee of protection, this too will lead to dropout or lack of enrollment. Lack of boundary wall, or placement of school in an environment that is not safe, is hostile or even has the perception of lack of safety attached to it will make children as well as parents wary. Few public schools in the country have chowkidars and/or effective safety measures in place. Too many lack basic infrastructure facilities like boundary walls, and effective gating facilities and procedures.
iii) If the school does not have basic infrastructure, like a functioning toilet, it will be hard for students to go to that school and this too will lead to dropout.
iv) If parents do not feel what is being taught is relevant or right for their children, we will have dropouts and/or low enrollment. Why do parents send their children to school? Literature shows that parents do want children to become literate and master skills needed for that, and parents also want children to learn useful skills that would get some return in the job market, whether these be vocational skills or skills needed for interaction in society like knowledge of Urdu/English, proper accent and so on. They also want the education system to give basic knowledge of their religion too. Literature also shows that parents do want their children to get the right values, attitudes and moral standards from their education as well. Whether it be ‘values’ of ‘obedience’ and ‘subservience’ or values of ‘honesty’ parents expect children to imbibe them from schools and through the curriculum and pedagogical methods as well. If parents feel that the values being taught to their children are not the ones they want, or ones that do not resonate with them, if they do not have the confidence and trust in the education system, the school, and the teacher to be able to give the right values, they will feel less confident about sending their children to school. Again, this might be an issue that has a differentially larger impact on girls.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of governance issues in this domain or governance issues that impact girls differentially, it is an indicative list to point out some easily neglected aspects of governance. All of the above are aspects that link up with the issues of cost, security, perceived or real, objective or subjective, and/or trust.
Getting every child educated is important for us. Pakistan’s efforts are linked to its commitment to meet the Education for All (EFA) targets and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This is now a commitment that has been acknowledged as an obligation of the state of Pakistan and as a basic right of every child in Article 25A of the Constitution of the country. This, legally and potentially, gives a very powerful way of addressing these governance issues. A lot will depend now on how 25A is implemented. If implemented in letter and spirit, it could be a way of addressing most of the ills of the education system and it could have a differentially larger impact on governance issues regarding girls education.