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Investing in girls

The scale of our educational problems is so huge that without public-private partnerships, without social enterprises and innovative solutions, we will likely remain unable to fix them

Investing in girls

“We did not have access to a girls’ middle/secondary school in our neighbourhood so my cousin who is my age (14-15 year-old) was married. If you can’t go to school then getting married is the only option left to girls. I will go to school now.”

The girl who made this observation dropped out after primary school because she did not have access to middle school. She is now back in school because her neighbourhood primary school recently joined the Sustainable Transition and Retention in Delivering Education (STRIDE) programme. Under this programme, the primary school operates as a middle/secondary school in the afternoons.

Her words and enthusiasm about getting back in school spoke volumes about the life-changing effect of this initiative. There are more than twenty girls in her neighbourhood who have joined this afternoon middle school. All of them had earlier dropped out of education for the same reason.

In another district, an older girl now married and mother of a child, came back to school to re-start her education after the same programme started an afternoon middle/high school in her neighbourhood primary school.

The STRIDE programme works in partnership with provincial governments and was conceived by the Institute for Social and Policy Science (I-SAPS). STRIDE is an innovative solution that aims to improve access, retention (staying in school), and transition rates (promotion from one grade to the next) for girls and boys. In addition to setting up afternoon schools, the programme is also testing the impact of subsidised transportation to school in the form of transportation vouchers.

UNESCO estimates that around 263 million children of school-going age are out of school worldwide. Of these, 95.8 million children are from South Asia, with Pakistan contributing about 20 million children to this figure. The group of out of school children (OOSC) is complex, not only in its makeup (age, sex, and region) but also because of the reasons that keep children out of school.

In Pakistan, the group of OOSC comprises 4.9 million primary school-aged children (of which 62 per cent are girls), 5.4 million middle school-aged children (of which 53 per cent are girls), and 9.5 million secondary school aged children (of which 52 per cent are girls). This is the education emergency we find ourselves in right now. In such circumstances, STRIDE and similar programmes have a vital role to play.

The group of out of school children (OOSC) is complex, not only in its makeup (age, sex, and region) but also because of the reasons that keep children out of school.

STRIDE is only one of many innovations being supported by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) through its Ilm Ideas 2 programme. “We’re especially interested in ideas that improve education for girls,” says Helen Kamal, who leads the Ilm Ideas 2 team. “Educating a girl is one of the best investments her family and society can make, yet still the majority of girls in Pakistan are excluded from education, let alone quality education.”

People often ask if development aid makes a difference. It is a difficult question to answer. However, the case for aid is easy to make when you see first-hand how people’s lives are being affected, especially the lives of little girls.

Re-read that statement of the little girl at the beginning of the article, because it is profound. Unavailability of schooling alters the course of any child’s life in an irreversible way, but the consequences are even greater for girls. In many cultures, unavailability of schooling for any reason means young girls are married off, bear children when they are still children themselves, endangering their health, development, and wellbeing.

DFID’s chief economist Rachel Glennerster talks about her work in Bangladesh and suggests that if girls can stay in school until the end of high-school (or at least until the age of 17) their chances of negotiating continuation of education increase manifold, even if they are married at that age. However, girls who are married at an earlier age drop out and are unlikely to return. Keeping a girl in school only a few more years increases the likelihood of enhancing her quality of life.

However, staying in school alone does not guarantee a resolution of equity issues. Messages of gender stereotyping are so strong that, according to a study published in the journal Science, by age 6, girls have already internalized that boys are smarter than them. The messaging to that effect comes from various sources including reinforcement of such stereotyping from parents, teachers, and even learning materials, which seldom include relatable content for girls and boys.

A cross-country analysis of government secondary school textbooks, found that women and girls were represented in just 24 per cent of cases (text and pictures combined). In addition, girls and women were found to be underrepresented in prestigious and high-income professions and are mostly shown in domestic roles, whereas men are not represented in domestic roles at all.

AZCORP, a comic developer, is creating exciting educational content for Pakistani children and young adults in the form of comic books. They are intervening at an age where children are the most impressionable and when girls are likely to start internalising that intelligence is associated with gender.

The development of AZCORP’s latest series of comic books is supported by Ilm Ideas 2. The series, based on the National Curriculum, is titled ‘Sheeba and Private Detectives’. Sheeba, a 13-year-old girl, is the lead character. She comes from Dhobi Ghat and solves problems in her community by using her knowledge of math and science. Her friends include two girls, a boy, a dog and a donkey. The series seeks to help children develop a love of reading, while at the same time helping them understand important concepts in math and science.

However, equally importantly, staying true to their philosophy of challenging stereotypes, by having a girl lead these adventures, AZCORP is giving little girls a relatable role model who is not afraid of leading or of math and science. At the same time, they are, “instilling in young boys the value that men and women can exist as equals and that they should not only accept female leaders but also support them in their work. Young boys will grow up to question gender-based assumptions,” say Imran Azhar, CEO, AZCORP.

Imran proudly mentions an anecdote from one of AZCORP’s many research sessions conducted in different schools in Lyari and Malir where students are asked to help design relatable heroes for their comics. After attending these sessions, a little girl said, “I was told girls are not meant to study more, neither they can have dreams as they have to look after homes but my parents are supporting my education and I am allowed to have dreams and pursue them because now they know, ‘I Am A Hero’.”

Parwaan’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) programme, funded by Ilm Ideas 2, is a great example of how social enterprise can help create jobs for the hardest to reach populations. Parwaan provides a pathway into employment for those women and men who are either trying to enter the job market or looking for a secondary means of income. Parwaan’s ECE model provides young men and women training to become entrepreneurs in the field of early childhood education.

Bushra is one of the entrepreneurs living in a middle-income locality of Multan. After obtaining her B.Ed. followed by two years of job search, she could only find a private primary school teaching job offering a salary of Rs3,000 per month. After receiving training in early childhood pedagogy, entrepreneurship and business-management skills under the Parwaan programme, she established her own ECE centre in Multan. Bushra now makes around Rs20,000 a month. To date, 29 pre-primary age group children are enrolled at her centre. She has also enrolled three marginalised children who cannot afford to pay the monthly fee, free of cost. Her Parwaan centre is frequented by polio workers for immunisation and she regularly engages parents by organising sessions on hygiene and child nutrition.

Today, Bushra is not only herself financially independent but is expanding her ECE centre and employing other young women of the community as caregivers and teacher assistants. She aspires to accommodate 200 pre-primary age-group children by growing and expanding her ECE centre.

These are just a few examples of Ilm Ideas 2-funded projects that are making concrete differences in the lives of girls and women while solving some of Pakistan’s biggest problems. The scale of our problems, be it access to quality education or employment opportunities, is so huge that without public-private partnerships, without social enterprises and innovative solutions we will likely remain unable to fix them. Indeed, the scale is such that deploying conventional approaches to these problems is so expensive as to make them unrealistic. If nothing changes, in just a few years Pakistan’s youth bulge, touted as its strength today, will become a massive liability.

As someone put it succinctly, Pakistan may grow old before it grows rich. So, once we can identify the approaches that work and have the desired impact, the government and the private sector need to step in to provide the support necessary to help sustain, adopt, and scale them.


Dr Ayesha Razzaque

Ayesha Razzaque
The author is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University. She may be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • Very informative and superbly written. Have enjoyed this a lot. What good work is being done. Should be highlighted even more. Please keep the articles coming Dr. Razzaque.

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