New Internationalist

A Quiet Escape

Issue 315

new internationalist
issue 315 - August 1999

A quiet escape
Girls in rural Pakistan have a slim chance of schooling.
But Charlotte Carlsson unearths a small success story in the wilderness.

‘If nothing else it’ll make it easier to get her married,’ he says, taking me behind a wall of dried cow-dung and straw surrounding the family compound. ‘But I hope she will become a teacher.’ Manzoor, a thin, tall man with sunken eyes is commenting on his daughter’s education as we pass some cattle, outstretched in the scorching afternoon sun, on our way towards the women’s quarters.

Photo by CHARLOTTE CARLSSON As is usual in rural Pakistani families, 11-year-old Zerina (pictured below) is busy looking after her younger brothers and sisters. Unlike most girls in Sindh province, however, she will not go through life uneducated. ‘I go to school in the mornings and help my mother around the house in the afternoons,’ she says, putting her younger brother Waseem down on the dirt floor. ‘I’m the only one in our family who can read so far,’ she adds, pride reflected in her big brown eyes.

Zerina is lucky. Only around ten per cent of women in the province can read or write and fathers are usually reluctant to send their daughters to school. A child whose mother has a say in education decisions is much more likely to go to school. In nearly 80 per cent of the cases, however, the father is the sole decision-maker. The gender gap here is alarmingly wide: 70 per cent of boys go to school compared to 45 per cent of girls, and even then girls are 40-per-cent more likely to drop out.

The story in Zerina’s home village of Pakkho is different only because the local community has taken it into its own hands to provide its children with education. In the mornings, Zerina is one of 150 bouncy students crowded into a small open space part covered with a makeshift wooden roof. There is little shade here during the unbearably hot summers. There are no toilets, drinking water or electricity.

Yet Rabia Begum, teacher here for two decades, shows me around proudly. ‘The community makes the space available. If we had waited for government support, we would have nothing,’ she says. ‘Most parents like to send their daughters here. Two of our students are now primary teachers themselves,’ she continues, pointing towards Amra and Zeenat-un-Nissa.

The Pakkho school gives the lie to the argument that poverty is the main explanation for the gender gap. This is unmistakably a poor farming area yet despite the ramshackle condition of the school, it is well attended and has the community’s support.

In sharp contrast, the school in Laiqpur, on the other side of Sindh province, was built with an investment of $24,000 from the World Bank. It has functioning latrines, running water, desks and teaching materials. But something is missing — female students. Only nine girls have enrolled. ‘We travel for two hours to get here and back every day just to face empty desks,’ says Shahida Mehmood, one of the Laiqpur teachers.

The lesson here is that resources tend to find their way into the channels that suit the powers-that-be. Powerful landowners and politicians in Pakistan have their own ways of getting schools built in their home communities regardless of need. A few families still hold quasi-feudal power over entire villages, controlling everything from food to basic services. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that it is virtually unheard of for people to vote against the local landowners in elections.

Farzana Saleem, Director of Women’s Development in the Sindh provincial government, believes that to even out this type of inequity, public spending has to be more accountable and transparent. Today, less than five per cent of the Sindh provincial government budget is allocated to education. Half of the budget goes to debt servicing and 40 per cent to defence, leaving little for sectors such as health and education.

‘We can’t afford this waste,’ says Saleem. ‘You cannot make a three-piece suit out of a small piece of cloth. But with the right techniques you can make a good jacket,’ she adds with a smile.

The ‘small piece of cloth’ is an effective metaphor for education spending in Pakistan as a whole, which notoriously spends twice as much on defence as on education and health put together. Enrolment rates for girls are the lowest in the world bar Yemen.

A new study released in December 1998 suggested that communities could successfully press government officials for more support by suggesting local solutions. But with a national average of 55 per cent of primary-school-age girls still with no chance of schooling, Farzana Saleem is not optimistic. ‘We can make a dent by encouraging communities to find their own solutions. But ultimately what is needed is the political will to back the Government’s promises,’ she says.

Until the Government delivers, success stories like that in Pakkho are likely to be few and far between, dependent on one community’s particular resolve. For Zerina, though, the dirt floor and supportive surroundings are a huge step forward. ‘I like school,’ she says. ‘The teachers are nice and it’s something different from the household work.’ Zerina has escaped the gender trap but for all too many girls like her in Pakistan there is still no way out.

Charlotte Carlsson is a photojournalist based in Brussels, Belgium.

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