Cultural and governance problems keep girls out of school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Old school

A large number of girls’ schools have been hit by terrorism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but bad governance and cultural limitations have also played a role in the abysmal state of girls’ education in the province.

According to a report by the Conflict Monitoring Center – an organization that monitors anti-state violence in South Asia – more than 758 schools have been destroyed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa between 2009 and 2013. About 640 of them were in Malakand Division. At least 164 of them were completely destroyed, while 476 were partially damaged.

But the most backwards districts in the province in terms of girls’ education are Kohistan, Shangla, and Battagram, where the number of high schools for girls is two, four and seven respectively, according to a report by the Elementary and Secondary Education Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Two middle schools for girls in Battagram, two in Kohistan, and one each in Abbottabad, Charsadda, Mansehra and Nowshehra are temporarily closed.

“For girls, education means more than learning mathematics or sciences”

Allai, a small town located just a few miles off the main Karakoram Highway, is one of the most backwards sub-district in the country, when it comes to education for girls. For more than 200,000 people of the Allai town, which falls in Battagram district, there isn’t a single high school for girls. According to statistics provided by the district education office in Battagram, sub-district Allai has 45 primary schools for girls, and two middle schools but no high school or college. It is the only town in the entire district where there are no high schools for girls. The district has a total of seven girls’ high schools.

Abdul Aziz Khan, a primary school teacher in Tailoos area of Allai, says he had put in a lot of effort to set up a school inside his home for girls to study beyond the 5th grade. More than two dozen women enrolled in the school, which was funded by Save the Children, a non-profit organization. They were to appear in board exams as private candidates. But the center was closed down two months ago, after the federal government banned Save the Children.

“I don’t know how I will continue my education after finishing middle school,” says Fatima Aziz, a student of grade 5 at the Tailoos primary school.

Kulsoom, who taught at the private school run by Aziz, said a more pressing problem was the attitude of people of the area towards women’s education. “Women’s education is not even a priority for them,” she said. “If they had raised the issue with the authorities, a school might have been built.”

Sadia Aziz, the sub-divisional education officer for Battagram, also believes the primary reasons behind the lack of schools for girls in the area are cultural. The dropout rate is very high, she told me, and people often do not approve of girls’ education.

There are 45 primary schools for girls in Allai is 45, but there is only one middle school.

Before building new schools, the education department considers the sustainability of the project and the outcome, Sadia Aziz told me. “If people do not send their girls to school, how will it be sustainable?”

A large number of teachers at the primary schools in Allai are on leave, and teach in other parts of the country and the world.  Women teachers from other areas of the province refuse to work in Allai because it is a remote mountainous town with no facilities. In line with a new policy made by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, women teachers will now be recruited from the same union councils or from the adjacent ones, to ensure they will go to work.

The most important measure, Sadia Aziz believes, is to create awareness in the town about the benefits of girls’ education.

Shah Hussain Khan, the member of provincial assembly from the area, says he had begun work on two middle schools in the Allai tehsil after he was elected in 2002 on a Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal ticket. His party was then in government. But now, since he is part of the opposition, he says he has found it hard to secure funds.

“There must be equitable access to education in rural and urban areas, for both genders,” asserts Khadim Hussain, who is the managing director of the Bacha Khan Trust Foundation. The organization works on promoting primary education in the province. Education has never been a priority for successive governments, he believes. At least 2.5 million children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are out schools and most of them belong to rural areas, he told me. “The only solution to the problems of the education sector is policy prioritization.”

A major problem he points out is as although schools have been built in a lot of rural areas, the local people had not been taken into confidence and therefore do not own them. “Most schools are out the governance net and therefore they remain either fully or partially dysfunctional,” he said, adding that there was an immediate need for training of teachers and monitoring of schools.

Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of the global icon for girls’ education and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, says her foundation is working on a number of schools in her hometown and adjacent areas. Two colleges for girls are also under construction in Shangla district.

“The reason we are focusing on Shangla district is that there are three girls’ high schools for more than 700,000 people, and the number of girls attending schools is very low,” he said.

Yousafzai said girls’ education was extremely important for protecting women’s rights as well.  “In patriarchal societies, education for girls is not only about learning mathematics or sciences. It is their only way to freedom, to speak for their rights.”

By Hamid Hussian

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