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If you were a girl in Pakistan, your life would be unrecognisable – how a woman’s worth is still defined by the children she bears8 min read

If you were a girl from a poor family in Pakistan, you would most likely not be in school. As an under 16-year-old, you would be one of 25 million children who are currently not in school.

Or you may be one of the 11 million children under the age of 10, who are working instead of learning how to read, write and do maths. You might even be one of those 5–9 year-olds who are already married off because your family could not pay their debts.

If by some chance, you made it to high school, you’d most likely become a mother before graduating — if you’d graduate at all. If not you, then you’d see several of your classmates go through this, because 69% of married girls in Pakistan have already given birth at least once by the age of 19.

If you’d get the chance to start school at all, let alone high school, you’d be one of the lucky ones.

Opportunities for girls become the destinies of women

Families don’t have an incentive to send girls to school, because the job opportunities for girls are much more narrow than for boys.

Traditionally women are more respected as homemakers, than as a part of the workforce. A woman’s career is typically unlikely to happen, and often short and very low paying when it does.

For men, it is a point of honour to be the breadwinners of the family, and it is a common perception that the working woman is shameful and promiscuous.

Even in educated families, there can easily be an expectation that their daughters will work for a few years after graduating, before “growing out of that phase” so they can get married, have children and finally settle down to do the job they were intended to do as women.

Not everyone can afford to be literate. The general literacy rate in Pakistan is an estimated 64% — sceptics and education specialists believe the number is much lower; only 26%. According to them, the higher estimate includes people who can barely sign their name.

The literacy rate for girls in urban areas is 38% but only 8% in the countryside. Experts’ more conservative estimates put the general literacy rate for girls at 12%. In the worst areas, only 3% of girls are literate.

The literacy rate for girls has stagnated because of all the girls who start school over half drop out

The poor quality of education, and the fact that out of 160 000 primary schools only 40 000 serve girls makes it very difficult for girls to enter and graduate school.

The higher a girl wants to be educated, the less education there is available to her.

Just under half the population in Pakistan is female, about 90 million people. They are all served by just over 250 high schools and universities across the whole country.

The drop out rates are staggering: every year about 7 million girls begin primary school, 1,5 million girls continue to high school and only 0,5 million girls start university studies.

The girls who make it all the way to university generally perform much better than boys in the essential final exams and get better grades across the board. Sadly, most of these girls will never get to develop these capabilities.

Marriage typically prevents girls from getting an education, because it binds them to the home

Child and shotgun marriages are banned by law in Pakistan, but traditions are dug in deep. According to the UN, child marriages are on the rise in Pakistan and other developing countries.

According to reports published in 2013 half of all marriages in Pakistan are made with girls under 18 years of age. A UNICEF report states that 70% of girls in Pakistan are married before they turn 16.

Girls are married young for reasons such as chastity and preserving family honour. In tribal areas, girls are also used for debt trading. According to tradition, tribal elders can settle blood feuds and debts that a debtor cannot pay, by marrying off daughters to the creditor.

This method is also used to strengthen the peace between tribes. The average age of girls in these types of situations is about 5–9 years. Of all the 19-year-old married girls less than 4% had some kind of say in choosing their future husband. Over 80% of girls are married to a close or distant relative.

Poverty prevents girls from attending school

When a family doesn’t have enough money for everyday expenses, children are taken out of school and put to work. The smallest children can help the parents at work and jobs are found for the older children; often in a factory or as domestic help.

In poor families the contribution of the children to house chores are also significant; when the parents are away working the children clean, cook, do the shopping and look after younger siblings — even when they have a job of their own to take care of. Like this girl selling shoes and bangles on the street after school:

Jamila

Jamila is 11 years old and works as a maid. At first, her job was to take care of the baby of her employer family, but as she grew the older maid was fired, and all the work given to Jamila. Now she takes care of everything from cooking and cleaning as well as looking after the baby.

“I want to go to school like other children, but my parents cannot afford it. I have to work to help support my family,” she described her life.

Khanzadi

10-year-old Khanzadi works as live-in domestic help for a family in a wealthy neighbourhood in Karachi.

“She is lucky to be with us. We can give her a little food and help her to grow,” says Khanzadi’s mistress.

But Khanzadi is unhappy: every day she sees girls like her going to school and a restlessness overtakes her — but she has to remain in the house and do her work.

Source: UNESCO grassroots stories.

Farheen

Farheen is one of the lucky ones. She has been able to start school even though her family lives on very little income. Her father is uneducated and makes a meagre living on which her family has to live. After school Farheen does chores in addition to her homework and dreams of all children being able to go to school.

I don’t want to see children cry, because they can’t make their dreams come true. I want to be able to make their dreams become a reality. More than for myself, I wish this for them because I know what it feels like when what you wish for doesn’t come true.

– Farheen

Girls fare better in cities than in the countryside

In larger cities, people are coming together to send their daughters to school. Sharing the cost and the responsibility of education make it easier, and families receive peer support from one another. It is easier to send girls to school in urban areas because the schools are concentrated in the large cities.

In the countryside, there are many obstacles to girls attending school. The schools are far away; they are too expensive for the families to afford, there is a lack of teachers, the quality of education is poor, schools are often not open to girls and educating girls is seen as worthless compared to girls taking care of a house and children.

Attitudes towards girls’ education are slowly changing

Slowly changing attitudes have begun to shape society into a more positive place for girls, but much change is still needed. Research has shown that not only do individuals benefit from educating girls but entire countries do: when the girls get a higher income the GDP rises.

When girls are put on the same level as boys in education, the gap between the sexes grows smaller, both in school and in working life.

Educated women create more services for women and the overall health of women improves and child mortality rates decrease.

Educated girls and women are more aware of and make better choices in life, improving the quality of life for themselves and their families.

An educated woman is more involved in family decisions than an uneducated one, and experiences less domestic violence.

The statistics from Pakistan are bleak, and it is easy to sink into despair. However, the world can be changed one child at a time.

The more girls  in Pakistan and other countries with poor education for girls get an opportunity to – not only enter – but also graduate school, the more significant the snowballing effect on society will be.

You can support a poor girl’s education through your favourite foundation or charity. You should also use your vote to ensure that education in your country and area is accessible and sufficiently funded and that the value of an education is not forgotten or undermined.

Together we can improve education for future generations.