Before the arrival of COVID-19 in Pakistan resulting in an unprecedented, nationwide disruption to education, our country had been host to the second largest population of out-of-school children in the world. The number of children between the ages of 5 – 16 years who were without access to formal education stood at a staggering, 22.8 million. The majority of these out-of-school children were girls.
In post-COVID Pakistan, it is feared that an additional 1 million children will never return to their classrooms. Every new piece of data gauging the pandemic’s fall-out on Pakistan’s education indicators only reaffirms this misgiving. With millions of households across the country having slipped below the poverty line since the advent of the pandemic, the number of children either forced into labor to supplement household incomes or simply withheld from education to curtail household expenses is seeing an all-out increase. At the same time, regressive social norms, such as childhood marriages are also feared to become more rampant in the aftermath of prolonged school closures.
However, while the pandemic has certainly aggravated the situation, there is no denying that the country’s education sector had been struggling to win an uphill battle for decades without much success.
True, during the last decade or so, Pakistan had successfully brought in close to 2 million children into the formal educational realm. This increase was supported by a variety of tactics such as educational stipend schemes, and robust enrolment drives. The most promising aspect of this small win was a success in bringing more girls into schools.
However, most of this success had been achieved at the primary level and the drop-out rate at the secondary and higher secondary levels, especially for girls had remained dismal, to say the least.
And now, even the small gains made over more than a decade slipping away from under Pakistan’s feet, there is an urgent need to re-think education in the post-pandemic scenario.
On one hand, there is a need to immediately pilot and, in quick succession mainstream hybrid and distancing learning alternatives to make our education system shock resilient. On the other hand, a national effort to increase internal streams of revenue to enhance public investment in education needs to be prioritized on an emergency footing. This enhanced investment is required to not merely address access issues such as a lack of schools (especially at the secondary level), provision of missing facilities such as clean water and toilets in schools, and conduct robust enrollment drives. It is also much needed to enhance the quality of education being imparted in our schools by recruiting and training a much greater number of subject specialist teachers, introducing new-age learning aids in our classrooms, and making hybrid and digital learning possible across the public-school landscape.
At the heart of this effort must lie our little girls.
Concerted efforts must especially be made to ensure that more girls graduate to the secondary level and do not drop out until acquiring at least 12 years of education. Even today, for every 100 girls enrolled at the secondary level in Pakistan 223 girls of the same age are out of school in the country. Demand-side socio-cultural barriers coupled with supply-side issues such as an acute lack of girls’ schools at the secondary level compound to deprive millions of Pakistani girls of a chance at continuing their education. More information on barriers to girls’ education will be provided in the upcoming articles in this series.
And so, a truly comprehensive effort at protecting past gains made in education and ushering in an era of an emergency resilient education system, Pakistan must, at all costs devise a gender-responsive national plan that strives to not merely bring more girls to schools but also ensures that they remain there.