Saadia, not her real name, began school a few years later than she should have. But by the time she was 14-years-old she was enrolled in grade 7, along with her 12-year-old sister. Her teacher, Tooba Akhtar, at the government high school they attended in Karachi, said that although the younger sister was brighter, Saadia was more hardworking. “One day Saadia came up to me, near tears, and told me that her father said they weren’t allowed to attend school anymore,” says Akhtar.
The girls couldn’t offer her an explanation, but they did provide their teacher with their father’s phone number in the hope that she would convince him. Akhtar called up the father, ready to list all the ways an educated daughter would fare far better in life than one bereft of schooling. It turned out that the girl’s father, a Pashtun man of modest means, did not need to be schooled about the importance of education.
“He told me he had enrolled his girls in school with the hope that they would one day be scientists,” says Akhtar. “The reason he was pulling them out was because it was no longer safe for Saadia to walk to school as the galli kay larkay harass her during her daily 20-minute walk to school,” Akhtar adds.
Saadia’s mother’s ill health didn’t allow her to walk with the girls to school, and the father could either retain his job or pick and drop his daughters, so given his security concerns what choice did they have but to pull the girls out of school?
Saadia’s father is not alone in this predicament. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 34 per cent of out-of-school girls are not attending because their parents have “not allowed them to go to school”. For boys this number is at 6 per cent.
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The idea of “not allowing your child to go to school” is most commonly understood to mean that parents do not understand the value of education. However, it appears, that this may not be the only, or even the most pertinent, understanding of why parents do not grant schooling to their children.
The contemporary problem seems to be that while parents understand the value of education, and they desire schooling for their child (albeit this desire is more pressing for boys, as compared to girls), they may still be unable to manoeuvre their realities in such a way that education becomes a possibility.
A Kasur-based mother of six who cleans houses for a living while her husband works as a day labourer, states that the only way her children will be anything but day labourers is by getting education. A woman who cooks for a living in Lahore, and has two children, exclaims that without education her children are doomed to a life as limiting as hers. A peon in an Islamabad-based media organisation, with eight children, says if he’s not able to educate his children, he is doing them a grave injustice.
However, none of them is able to send their children to school. The Kasur-based mother says she is unable to send the older ones to school since then she will have no one to fend for her younger children. Maybe, she will send them when she herself can afford to stay home, instead of work. The cook in Lahore suggests there is no convenient way for them to get to and fro school. Neither she nor her husband can drop them. And vans are frightfully expensive. She says she will wait for better (financial) times before she sends them to school.
And the peon says educating his children in government school is useless given their low quality of education, while the expenses of a private school are too high for him to meet. So he’s waiting to find an optimal solution.
Quality of education is an important concern that is reflected in surveys conducted by Alif Ailaan, an NGO that works to promote education, that conclude 69 per cent of parents in Pakistan prefer to send their children to private schools, given the dubious quality of government schools.
However, according to the same NGO, the average private school teacher is hardly better qualified than the average public school teacher. This may also be one the reasons why the number of older out-of-school children is so much larger than younger out-of-school children.
“Parents often complain that if their child has been enrolled for 8-9 years and they still can’t be ready to pass the matriculation exams in a year, then isn’t it better and cheaper for the child to just stay at home and help their parents,” asks Huma Aslam, not her real name, a private school teacher in Lahore. “If the child isn’t learning fast enough, they pull them out and then, disheartened, they don’t even send their younger children to school.”
Another reason older children are more likely to be out-of-school is if they are old enough to earn money, then they are regarded as earning hands. Education is perceived as a long-term investment, and if parents are only able to experience the immediate cost (of those children not earning money) without being able to imagine education’s future benefits, they will fail to stay committed to the cause. While people understand the importance of education, it appears that education is still not the highest on their list of priorities
Although the proportion of out-of-school children is far greater in poorer communities, even those who are more privileged may not always prioritise education. The wife of a modest grocer in Karachi doesn’t send any of her five children to school, the eldest of whom is 10, and the youngest 4. “If it was convenient, I would send them. But their father is busy at work and enrolment is a complicated process with many rules, plus finding them a pick-and-drop, making sure the school is safe, and doesn’t teach them any immoral concepts are all factors I have to consider,” she says. “Their future is already written by God, whether or not they go to school.”
Akhtar, Saadia’s school teacher, doesn’t share the above-mentioned housewife’s belief in fate. Taking charge of the situation, she coordinated with Saadia’s father and arranged for a group of Saadia’s class fellows to walk her to the afternoon shift at school. Her father agreed to pick her up on his way back from work.
Coordination between administrators, parents, students, and teachers, coupled with creative solutions on everyone’s part is necessary to ensure that not only do children stay in school, but also to reduce the number of out-of-school children.