To say that girls in Pakistan are worse off than their male counterparts when accessing formal education is a bygone conclusion. A quick Google search will present Everest’s worth of empirical evidence pointing at the country’s dismal performance when making educational opportunities possible for its girl-children. But it hardly serves any purpose to lament what is wrong. On the contrary, it would prove so much more helpful to focus on why things have not improved and how they can take a turn for the better.
Demand-side socio-cultural issues indeed continue to serve as significant barriers to girls’ access to formal education, especially at the secondary level. Regressive social norms that preach girls’ place within the four walls of the house, early marriages, and child labor are just some of the issues owing to which communities across Pakistan continue to undervalue the importance of educating their daughters.
However, with over 20 years of consistent awareness-raising work undertaken both by the state and non-governmental agencies, one would like to believe that as far as demand-side pull factors are concerned, Pakistan is at the tail end of a winning battle. True, that there continue to be pockets across the country where girls’ education is still seen as taboo but thanks to rigorous enrolment drives and education stipend programs targeting girls, these pockets are rapidly shrinking.
And so, while Pakistan has good reason to celebrate improvement in its demand-side indicators, the supply-side issues, on the other hand, have emerged as major impediments to girls’ education.
For starters, there is an acute lack of secondary schools across the country, which makes it impossible for students in general and girls, in particular, to continue their education beyond the primary level even if they are otherwise willing and able to do so. In urban areas of Pakistan, on average there are only 48 secondary schools for every 100 primary schools and a dismal 22 secondary schools for every 100 primary schools in the rural areas of the country.
In terms of basic facilities, 26% of primary schools in urban areas and 37% in rural areas are without electricity. Similarly, 20% of schools in urban Pakistan and 25% in rural Pakistan are without toilets. The absence of toilets in schools is a major push factor for adolescent girls. This issue either results in absenteeism during their mensuration days leading to learning losses or forces them to drop out altogether.
Despite the heightened need for hand-washing stations and clean water following the pandemic, 19.1% of schools in urban areas and 25.5% of schools in rural areas continue to have no access to clean water. A significant number of schools, especially in the remote districts of the country also continue to be without boundary walls serving as a huge discouragement for parents to send their secondary-school-going aged girls to school.
The student-to-teacher ratio also serves as an important supply-side push factor. At the primary stage, the student-teacher ratio in urban areas ranges from 64 students per teacher in Punjab to 21 students per teacher in Gilgit-Baltistan. The national average of the number of students per teacher in rural areas is comparatively less owing to the fewer number of students enrolled in rural schools. More specific to girls, the absence of female teachers at the secondary level is considered a red flag by households and serves to discourage them from sending their daughters to school.
Accordingly, while addressing socio-cultural attitudes and behaviors towards girls’ education is certainly important, such efforts are likely to bear little fruit without simultaneously addressing the supply-side of the problem. There is thus, an urgent need for the state to devise a comprehensive strategy aimed at resolving critical supply-side issues to bring more OOS girls to school and ensure that they stay there.