Nowhere to Go But Up: Girls’ Education in Pakistan

By Kelsey L. Campbell

By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the story of Malala Yousafzai: In October 2012, she was shot in the head by the Taliban in her native Swat Valley in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province because she campaigned for girls’ right to education. She was medically evacuated to England, where after a miraculous recovery, she is now continuing her studies and her global push for girls’ education.

Malala’s story, like that of many young Pakistanis, has been an inspiration for millions and has highlighted some of the adversities in South Asia and around the world. For her bravery in the face of Pakistan’s Taliban, she was recently awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament, as well as the Anna Politkovskaya Award by Reach All Women in War. Inspired by Malala’s recently released book, faculty from George Washington University are developing interactive multimedia tools to accompany the book, highlighting major themes such as a valuing women’s participation and community engagement.

Young girls return home from school in Skardu, Baltistan. The blue kurta and white veil is a popular school uniform in Pakistan. April 2013. Photo by Kelsey L. Campbell

Young girls return home from school in Skardu, Baltistan. The blue kurta and white veil is a popular school uniform in Pakistan. April 2013. Photo by Kelsey L. Campbell

Malala’s story highlights two development issues in Pakistan: gender equity, and quality and access to education. Pakistan is one of a handful of critical countries likely to fail to reach Millennium Development Goal 2: Universal Primary Education by 2015. Even as several donor countries and NGOs make long-term commitments to build the capacity of provincial governments to deliver education, Pakistan still has a long way to go.

Officially, the government of Pakistan has committed to education for all. In 2012, the National Assembly passed Article 25-A of the constitution, guaranteeing the right to free and compulsory education to all children ages 5-16. Pakistan has been a signatory to almost all international conventions on education, including the Dakar Framework for Action in 2000, a UNESCO-led commitment signed by 164 governments to provide quality education for all children, youth, and adults. However, federal expenditure on education remains the lowest in South Asia and unable to meet the needs of the country’s youth—currently 1/3 of the nation’s population. For 2013-2014, education spending is just 1.9 of GDP (the global standard is 4).

According to UNESCO, Pakistan has the world’s second largest amount of out of school children, two-thirds of which are girls. In recent years, the primary net enrollment rate has risen to 74overall. However, the ratio of girls enrolled remains 14 percentage points behind boys. The enrollment discrepancy is even larger in rural areas than in urban areas. Fifty million Pakistani adults are illiterate, two-thirds of whom are women. The data demonstrates that girls are overwhelmingly marginalized in the current education construct.

Despite government commitment to increase resources to achieve gender parity in public schools, a 2011 Ministry of Education report revealed that only 36 of primary schools in Pakistan are girls’ schools. It was government rule of thumb for many years to build two primary boys’ schools for every one girls’ school. In the midst of the Islamization process in the 1970’s under General ul Haq, girls were often forced to leave coeducational schools even though no alternative girls’ schools were offered as a replacement.

Where girls’ schools do exist, infrastructure is often in poor condition. Parents do not like sending their children, especially daughters, to schools without toilets, running water, boundary walls, or electricity. Due to cultural norms, girls cannot travel alone to a school far from the village, particularly after they reach puberty. In much of rural Pakistan, schools are located more than two km from the home, discouraging parents from sending their daughters across unknown, unfriendly, or isolated territory.

Parents overwhelmingly prefer female teachers for their daughters. This creates several challenges—finding qualified women to teach in schools, and ensuring they are able to balance their own family duties with their role as teacher. After decades of lack of access to education, the supply of qualified teachers is too low to meet the needs of the school-age population. According to the Pakistani government, women comprise only 38 of the teaching force—a serious impediment to getting more girls to enroll and stay in school. Since very few women are appointed as school heads or to senior-level district positions, girls and female teachers often do not have a voice in the management of the public school system.

The national curriculum in Pakistan reflects a strong male gender bias, as well as an urban bias. The few depictions of women that exist in textbooks often fulfill gender stereotypes, such as representations of women as ill mannered, passive, and stubborn domestic workers. According to UNESCO, these stereotypes reinforce traditional gender roles and hinder the aspirations of many girls. In many parts of Pakistan, families prefer to invest in their sons, who are seen to be future breadwinners. For families with limited income, savings for girls is often spent on the dowry.

Even through poverty, illiteracy, and often times the restriction of movement, Pakistani women are known for their amazing strength. There are many recent examples of female role models: Sharmen Obaid-Chinoy who earned an Oscar for her documentary on acid violence, Samina Baig, who at age 21 was the first Pakistani woman to summit Mt. Everest, Humaira Bacha, who as a teenager built and now operates a school in Karachi, and the scores of women and mothers, like Mossarat Qadeem, who are leading the way in moderating extremism and building peace. The latest role model is the Burka Avenger, who is reaching younger audiences with her ability to fight evil with her books, pens, and advanced acrobatics. Pakistani women and their supporters will continue to make great strides to ensure education for all. Insha’allah, with continued support, no more young girls or boys will have to fight for the right to education.


Kelsey L. Campbell is a Foreign Affairs Specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and an Air Force veteran. The views expressed here are strictly her own.