GWADAR, Pakistan, Sep 13 (IPS) – Ten years ago I ran an academy for girls in Dohr Gatti, a small slum on the outskirts of Gwadar, a coastal city in Balochistan, southwestern Pakistan. Most girls were between eleven and fifteen years old and had little opportunity to receive formal education.
Plagued by tradition and poverty, their desire to learn was often thwarted by the tradition of marrying once they reached puberty and spending the rest of their lives raising children, as their mothers had done.
At the academy, I tried to raise awareness in the community about how crucial it was for girls to be educated. That worked, at least a little.
Years later, some girls in Dohr Gatti managed to enroll in local public schools. In 2021, one of my students earned the highest score on the district’s annual eighth-grade exam.
But even that couldn’t change her fate. Shortly after her victory on the test, which showed that she could potentially continue her studies, she had to quit. She was married off and sent to a remote village, where she still lives with her in-laws and a husband much older than her.
I often wonder how far students like her could have gone if their right to education had been protected and if they had just one chance to pursue their dreams.
The question often asked in such cases is: who exactly is to blame?
Religion and tradition mingle in Balochistan, a region of Pakistan that has its own language and culture, but where, like the rest of the country, Sunni Islam predominates.
Parents, tradition, patriarchy, poverty, political unrest in the region, the education system itself, the government, all come under scrutiny. But access to education for girls remains largely unchanged.
A luxury good
Balochistan is the largest but most underdeveloped province of Pakistan. According to a World Bank report, the overall literacy rate in the province is 41 percent. For women it is half: 19 percent.
It is no surprise that only two in 10 women in Balochistan can read, while UN data suggests that 78 percent of Baloch girls of school age are not in school. For those who are able to attend, the dropout rate among female students is much higher.
Despite these major obstacles, some have made progress. Some Baloch women have not only completed their education and started successful careers, but have also actively contributed to improving girls’ education in the region.
Anila Yousuf is the principal of a girls’ school in Pishukan, a small fishing village in southern Balochistan. She has recently been selected for postgraduate studies in Britain and recently published a collection of stories by women from Gwadar, her birthplace.
But she is aware that she is the exception:
“There is less enrollment among girls and many of them drop out of school once they reach secondary school. This means that the number of women in higher education and in the working sector is much lower,” says Yousuf.
Longstanding political tensions between the central government of Pakistan and Balochistan often take some of the blame for the problem, with local education budgets often treated as a political football.
However, a 2010 reform of Pakistan’s constitution transferred responsibility for education to local provinces, leading to an increase in provincial government funding for education.
International agencies, including the World Bank, UNICEF, US Partnership and British Council, have also collaborated through local organizations focused on reducing gender disparities in provincial education.
Provincial ministers receive an annual ‘development fund’ that they can spend on various projects, including education initiatives, within their respective constituencies. However, critics say the money doesn’t seem to have done much to solve the problem.
“There is no proper planning for effective use of the funds. Even public school teachers do not register their children,” Yousuf said. “They choose private schools or send their children outside the province.”
Private schools have become a thriving business in the province’s towns and cities. But with 60% of the population living below the poverty line, private education for girls is a luxury inaccessible to the majority.
The lack of women with formal education in Balochistan has affected the local labor market and limited the ability of many Baloch women to start careers. According to Yousuf, most of the few women entering the workforce tend to be teachers or healthcare workers.
“I fear we are going backwards across the country. Women are increasingly confined at home. There are still specific markets for it and more and more Koranic schools are seen, more and more women hidden under a burla,” says the activist.
Zaitoon Kareen, professor at the university in Uthal, Balochistan, tells IPS that education for a daughter is always more expensive in Balochistan.
“Baloch girls need help, especially for higher education if they have to travel and live in another town or city. They need better accommodation for safety reasons and someone to accompany them when they travel to schools or colleges,” Kareen explains.
She will soon leave the province herself after being accepted for postgraduate studies in Britain.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) shows that girls only go to school if there is one close to home. But because only 26 percent of primary schools, 42 percent of lower secondary schools and 36 percent of upper secondary schools accept girls, it is often difficult for families to find a neighborhood school for their daughters to attend.
“If parents can only afford to invest in one child’s education, they tend to prioritize the boy because he is more likely to get a paid job and live with his parents in the future ” says Hafsa Qadir, an activist at WANG. -a local NGO- tells IPS.
In 2020, the Baloch provincial government attempted to address the problem, claiming that a new education plan, the Education Sector Plan 2020-25, would address inequality.
But COVID-19 and the devastating floods of 2022 wiped out hundreds of schools and roads in the region, derailing the plans.
Zakia Baloch, a local woman who went to school and now works as a physiotherapist – one of the first women to work in the field in the region – said part of the problem is that the schools themselves often prevent girls from continuing their education to put.
“Rather than providing quality education, there is often a lot of emphasis on traditional gender roles, primarily preparing girls for domestic duties, rather than equipping them for a career and empowering them as independent individuals,” she says.
She called the government-funded education system “negligent” in the teacher selection process, resulting in “under-trained teachers with very limited skills and exposure.”
“In 2023, when technology has opened up many learning opportunities, our system is still locked in a cocoon,” laments the Baloch woman.
© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service