Must Girls Suffer?

Ayesha Fahad-Shahbaz

“If we educate a boy, we educate one person. If we educate a girl, we educate a family – and a whole nation.” (An African proverb)

They go to school, help with household chores, work in factories, make friends, care for elder and younger family members and prepare themselves to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. Girls play multiple roles in the household, society and the economy. But where are we standing today? The above quote exhibits the realization that the African societies have and we are still unmindful to it. Perhaps, a lack of this recognition is impeding our girls’ way to education and is forcing them to lead a life of melancholy and dispossession. It is, perhaps, because of this peril that mortality rate among them is increasing to alarming levels.

Unfortunately, Pakistan is the 21st largest country in the world in terms of under-five mortality rate among girls. The graveness of the situation can be gauged from the fact that Pakistan is the second most unfortunate country in South Asia (after Afghanistan) where mortality rate of girls under five years of age is far greater than that in other countries in the region like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives. Though life for the girl child is steadily improving, many are still subjected to horrific practices, such as female genital mutilation, son preference often resulting in female infanticide as well as child marriage, sexual exploitation and abuse. Girls are also more likely to experience discrimination in food allocation and healthcare, and are often outpaced and outranked by boys in all spheres of life.

The Girl Child was also one of the 12 critical areas of concern raised in the “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action” in 1995, concluding in nine strategic objectives framed as a means of holding governments accountable for girl’s rights. Freedom from all forms of discrimination against the girl child remains only partly fulfilled, and governments and societies must galvanize efforts if true freedom is to be won. Policies and programs initiated must be duty-bound to take into consideration the differing, yet critical, needs of the girl child in terms of physical protection from sexual and physical exploitation, discrimination in all forms including in the field of education, and increased awareness of the struggles being faced by girls today.

International Day of Girl Child is celebrated every year on 11th October and many oaths are taken to save girl child from being killed with the ill practices of our society, or to clear the minds of the masses regarding girl child…. But alas! Things don’t change, minds don’t change…. These mucky opinions that our society has does not only exist in the minds of the un-educated ones but it is there in the highly educated minds too.

I did not understand the sentiment of being a mother of a girl before but now giving birth to twin girls almost three months ago I effusively understood how people around us react when they hear that they are “BOTH GIRLS” – though didn’t face this attitude from the immediate family but what to do with the surrounding? Some may raise the question that after all what all this has to do with education because it is actually a health-related matter. But hold on! You are not alone to feel that the question is pertinent; this question may also rise in every sane person’s mind. But, it is indubitably true that the root cause of this problem is the deprivation of girls’ of their right to education. But HOW?

Actually, this is a vicious circle that starts with ignorance and culminates also into ignorance. A number of international researches have already proved that educating girls leads to a decline in their mortality rate because these are the girls who will become mothers in future. And, if we educate girls, it simply means that we are educating the mothers of tomorrow and it will be immensely helpful in containing, and decreasing, their mortality rates. It’s a known fact that in today’s world girls are better aware of their rights and responsibilities. So, when they will become mothers, they will be able, and in a better position, to independently and confidently take decisions about them and about their children, especially those related to the number of births, health of children, their nutrition, schooling, employment, marriages, etc.

Painstaking researches at international level reveal that if all the women on the globe have primary level education, then the cases of child mortality in the world are decreased by approximately 15 percent. And, in case they complete their secondary education, the same will decrease by almost 50 percent, and nearly 3 million children could be saved from falling prey to death. Another long-term benefit of educating girls would be the better nutrition for the children. Literate and well-educated mothers do better understand the importance of following principles of hygiene. In this way, they will be better able to keep their children immune to disease by providing them with clean environment and hygienic conditions at home.

Moreover, it not only ends discrimination in matters of feeding the boys and the girls, but also plays an instrumental role in providing girls with immunization against childhood diseases. But, lack of education puts all these things on backburner which results in what we are seeing in Pakistan nowadays; 10 percent of Pakistani girls under five years of age are underweight with regard to their height, 27 percent are underweight according to their age while 42 percent have shorter heights. Moreover, only 58 percent of girls between age 12 and 23 months are provided immunization.

As per data available about Pakistan, the least ratio of immunization of girl child is in Balochistan where only 29 percent of girls in the above-mentioned age group are immunized against diseases. Interestingly, even this ratio is more than that of boys. Then comes the Sindh province where 40 percent of girls are immunized followed by Punjab with 58 percent. Immunization of girls more than any other province is provided in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where 68 percent of girls were immunized.

Depriving girls of opportunities to complete their education or keeping them illiterate results in what we call child marriages. An effective check to stop this problem is the continuation of girls’ education. A recent research on women conducted by International Centre for Research reveals that if girls have secondary level education, then chances of their underage marriages are decreased by as many as 600 percent. According to United Nations Population Fund, on average 140 million girls of less than 18 years of age annually are married throughout the world. It means that 38000 underage girls per day — 1 in every 13 seconds — are made to tie the wedlock.

In Pakistan’s context, the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2012-13, revealed that 13.9 percent of Pakistani girls of 15-19 years of age were married. The UNICEF’s State of the World Children Report 2015 also reports that in terms of marriages of under-18 girls, Pakistan ranks 64th in the world while for the girls of 15 years or less age, it sits at 70th position. Among 21 percent of married women of age 20-24 years in Pakistan, 18 percent were married before reaching the age of 18 years while 3 percent got married before 15 years. Underage marriages result in girls becoming mothers in their adolescence which is a big threat to the health, and life, of mother as well as the child.

UNICEF report states that the chances of maternal mortality among the mothers of 15-19 years for age are more than double to those of the mothers of 20 or more years of age. Another research says that chances of premature births — another major cause of child mortality — are greater in underage mothers. The deaths of underage mothers and their babies are closely related to mother’s health because the girl becomes mother at a tender age when she herself is growing up, and when she gives birth, her own health and that of her baby is adversely affected as the baby is born weak and underweight and the mothers may become anemic. Among these weak children, a big number is of girls — the mothers of future. If they are weak and malnourished since their infancy, then how on earth the children born to them can be healthy and strong. Even more alarming is the fact that has been reported by the UNICEF according to which among Pakistan’s married women of age group 20-24 years, 8 percent had become mothers before reaching the age of 18 years. And, this state of affairs makes Pakistan South Asia’s sixth and world’s 70th largest country in these terms.

Another potential threat to girl child is sexual violence; the acts of which are witnessed every now and then in almost all parts of the world. As per UNFPA data, more than half of the female victims of sexual violence in the whole world age less than 15 years. In 2012, as many as 54,000 girls of age 10-19 years lost their lives in such heinous acts. And, it is despicably true that nearly 30,000 among them were only from South Asia.

In Pakistan, too, situation is not that pleasant because as per the facts reported through Pakistan Health and Demographic Survey, more than 30 percent girls of 15-19 years of age actually were inflicted with physical violence. It is apt to mention here that any kind of violence against children not only hampers their physical, psychological and mental growth but its hazardous effects are also transferred to the next generations. The experts again present the same cure, and say that only education can help minimize the chances of domestic as well as sexual violence against girls.

For Pakistan, girls are of key importance because Pakistan is the fifth biggest country to host the girls of age below 18 years – under-18 individuals are included among children by the United Nations. It means that 3.56 percent of the world’s, and 13.36 percent of South Asia’s girls are found in Pakistan. As per the facts and figures extracted from US Census Bureau’s International Database, by 2015, the number of girls of below 18 years of age in Pakistan exceeds 40 million and 26.21 percent of South Asia’s and 15.53 percent of world’s total population consists of under-18 girls.

Even a cursory look at Pakistan’s educational scenario would reveal that the state of affairs regarding girls’ education is flabbergasting, to say the least. As per the UN’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2015, Pakistan has the world’s second highest number of out-of-school girls (30,51,000) — 10 percent of the world. As per Pakistan Social Living and Measurement Survey, girls’ enrolment at primary school level is only 53 percent — the lowest among six South Asian countries for which the data was available.

In Pakistan, the lowest ratio of girls’ enrolment is in Balochistan province where only 30 percent of the girls of school-going age actually go to schools. Sindh province has a better ratio with 43 percent, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with a slightly better score (46 percent). Punjab has the highest enrolment ratio with 63 percent. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that only 39.4 percent of girls enrolled at primary schools could complete their primary education. With this low ratio, Pakistan is the 47th country in this field, among the 57 for which the data is available. However, the story, unfortunately, doesn’t end here; the matter of girls’ education beyond primary level also calls for serious deliberations on the part of those at the helm of affairs.

At present, only 30 percent of Pakistani girls of age group 10-12 years are able to enroll themselves in middle schools while only 13 percent in age group 13-14 years go for matriculation level education. Again, the lowest ratio of girls’ enrolment in middle schools is in Balochistan where only 8 percent of girls in age bracket 10-12 years go to school. Similarly, at matriculation level, too, Balochistan has the lowest ratio with only 3 percent of girls of 13-14 years of age going to schools. Presently, the ratio of girls’ enrolment to that of boys is 0.88:1 at primary level and 0.84:1 at secondary school level which is to be elevated to 1:1 at primary school level and to a minimum of 0.94:1 at secondary school level, under Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At present, the literacy ratio among girls of 10-14 and 15-19 is nearly 66 percent which is 15 percent and 13 percent lesser than the boys of the same age groups, respectively.

This precarious state of educational affairs warrants special attention to girls’ education because an educated girl can make herself independent, support her family, help her community and, above all, can play an important role in the development of her country. It is also an undeniable fact that more the women are educated, the less they support terrorism and militancy as compared to men. So, if we are to build a developed and a brighter future for Pakistan, then it is inevitable that we provide girls with better education facilities, proper nutrition and healthcare and take every possible step to curb the menace of underage marriages so that the mother’s lap, where the future builders of the nation are to be brought up, becomes the real source of inspiration and guidance.

Ayesha Fahad-Shahbaz

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Ayesha is a civil servant by profession, a mother and a feminist by choice. Well-traveled and experienced in the developing societies, she particularly champions the cause of the girl-child and the young women. Can’t stop us now, she says!

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