Malika Amin should be in school at the time when she sells stationary items to students at an eatery at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Living in a slum in the neighbourhood slum of the university, the seven-year-old girl knows the importance of education and loves spending time in the company of students, but is denied her constitutional right to free and compulsory education because she cannot produce her birth certificate, which is a compulsion for admission, according to the school management.
The girl sells stationary items at the university to support her brother in running their household. They had lost their father when she was only three days old.
Malika’s mother Kalsoom Amin says, “Nothing is more painful for a mother aware of the importance of education, than not being able to educate her daughters.” She says she had tried to enroll Malika in a nearby government school but lack of documents barred her from enrolment.
Kalsoom has three children: Samina is 15 years old, Hassan 13 and Malika 7. Malika alias Guddi was supposed to enroll in class 4 and her elder sister, Samina, in class 9 when their mother shifted to Islamabad from Sialkot, following differences with her in-laws.
Samina has stopped going to school. However, Hassan is enrolled in the evening shift in a local school. He works at a workshop in the morning to support his family.
The three siblings are not unique; there are dozens of out-of-school children, mostly girls, in the slum who have not been to a school or have left school. There are thousands of out-of-school girls in the Islamabad’s slums, including street girls and Afghan refugees.
Saqib Shahab, the human resource management director at the federal directorate of education (FDE), says the FDE has a very clear enrollment policy for Islamabad’s model schools. He says no head of school is allowed to refuse admission to any child over missing documents. He says refusing admission for lack of documents is a clear violation of the law and action would be taken against the school management.
Shahab says children lacking documents are not bared from taking classes. He says an assurance is sought instead from their parents for the submission of documents over a certain period. If parents fail to submit the documents in the given time period, the school is advised to issue a warning but not stop children from taking classes.
Shahab says most of the out-of-school children in Islamabad over their status to their families who insist that they need them elsewhere.
The federal government is working on a project for street children and children who have crossed the age for joining regular classes.
Several thousand children, including girls, are out of school, he says.
A majority of them, he says, belong to poor families. Shahab says the government is working to bring street children to schools and a special syllabus has been designed for them.
He says space is available to allocate separate classrooms for the children who have crossed the age limit as per their enrolment policy. In remote areas like Tarnol and Nilore however, there is no space. Scools in these areas are already overburdened, he says.
Sajida Jabeen, a resident of Allahabad area of Rawalpindi, has three daughters who never attended school. Being an educated woman, she says she had a strong desire to educate her daughters but their father didn’t allow them to go to school.
Jabeen’s two daughters never attended school; however, the youngest who is now 14 went to school for nearly three years. She says whenever she tried to persuade her husband to allow their daughters to attend school he always asked her how this would benefit them.
When this correspondent talked to the father, he said girls should look after household and not seek education. He refused further comment. Similar attitudes prevail in parts of Rawalpindi.
District Education Officer (Primary/Elementary), Shahida Hashmi, said there are a number of factors behind out-of-school girls in rural areas. These include distant schools, social norms and illiterate parents. In urban areas patriarchal norms and financial factors keep girls away from schools.
Asked about achieving the 100 percent literacy target, Hashmi said no time frame had been set for this by the provincial government.
The focal person for girls’ education says the department has been trying to ensure enrollment of all out-of school girls but in some cases their parents are not ready to send them to schools. Instead they are sent to work and earn some money.
An education official requesting not to be named, as he was not authorised to speak, said many students didn’t come to school but their attendance was marked by teachers to avoid departmental action against the school managements.
It is pertinent to mention here that the Punjab government had earlier tasked the district managements with taking action against the institutions that failed to improve enrolment ratio and reduce the drop-out ratio.
According to official data, in Rawalpindi district, a total of 3,671 children are out of school; of which 2,193 are girls and 1,478 boys of ages four to sixteen years. The education officials claim that no drop-out case has been reported in the district. The enrollment data for 2017, 2018 and up to August, 2019 show increase in the enrolment rate.
There are 68,812 students verified (using CNICs) and 23, 420 unverified students enrolled in Rawalpindi district. The Rawalpindi tehsil has the highest enrolment ratio and Kotli Sattian the lowest among seven tehsils of Rawalpindi division.
Free and compulsory education is a constitutional right of every girl under the age of 16 in Pakistan. However, there are hundreds of thousands of girls out of school on account of lack of facilities, flaws in education system, security, poverty, gender norms, and customary codes and practices.
Officials say earlier school managements were asked to conduct surveys for out-of-school children in their areas. On the basis of these surveys the district government evolved its strategies. However, he said no survey has been taken in the past year.
Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), an organization working for education in Pakistan, says in its 2018 report that girls belonging to the poorest families are likely to suffer lower enrolment than their male counterparts.
The report says there is unacceptable gender gap that requires urgent remedial action. Girls’ enrolment remains depressed across all income quartiles and consistently lower than boys, the report adds.
As per ASER report 2017, among South and West Asian countries, the problem is most serious in Pakistan, where 5.4 million primary-school-age children have never even entered a classroom.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) 2018 report says that girls belonging to poor families are the most affected sector in Pakistan. The report states that among the poorest girls, only 16 percent finish primary school.
The legislature has made it a constitutional responsibility to provide free and compulsory education to all children aged five to 16.
UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and the Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM) 2017 estimate that there were 5.6 million primary, 5.4 million lower secondary and 9.8 million upper secondary school children out of school in Pakistan.
Pakistan has the second largest number of primary age out-of school children in the world after Nigeria. The country has also been described as among the world’s worst performing countries in the education sector at the 2015 Oslo Summit on Education and Development.
The report suggests that the state should spend at least 15 percent of the budget and 4 to 6 percent of the GDP on education in order to fulfill its obligations on education.
Although some efforts were being made, it noted, to improve the literacy rate and bring all out-of-school children, especially girls, to school these efforts were not enough to deal with the problem.
The writer is an investigative journalist based in Islamabad