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Progress, but in measured terms

Girls’ access to education in Pakistan has been restricted. Despite improvements in the last 20 years, underlying factors still make the state education system inefficient and must be addressed if girls’ access to education is to be ensured. The current male to female literacy ratio is still at 65:40.

Lower enrolment and retention rates among girls in Pakistan are usually wrongly assumed to be a result of religious and cultural practices that restrict demand for female education. Widespread acceptance of schools established by non-state actors, such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or religious groups in remote areas, prove that even conservative communities are willing to send girls to school if their needs are met. Having schools close to homes, timings that accommodate other demands on girls’ time, child-centred teaching methods and vocational education appeal to these communities.

Girl studying at a Madrasa religious school attached to the mosque in Mirpur District of Azad Kashmir, Pakistan. Tim Smith, Panos Pictures, 2008However, even all this does not guarantee girls’ post-primary education, in either rural or urban areas. Recent research from the University of Oxford, in the UK, found that in a government primary school supported by an NGO in Sheikurpura, mothers said, “Our girls cry all the time because they want to continue their education but there is no secondary school in the area, and it is not safe to travel long distances.”

For some of these girls, madrasas – Islamic schools which provide residential facilities – become a more accessible option. Most female madrasa students join this system after completing secondary or higher secondary education in the secular education system. However, this is not the only reason for the rapidly expanding female madrasas, which are over 3,000 in number. Many students join madrasas due to conscious preference for Islamic education.

Girls’ education features in all government education policy documents. However, actually including girls in the state educational system cannot be ensured in a context where the state education system suffers from fundamental structural problems, such as inadequate funding, a project based instead of sector wide approach to educational policy planning, the political rather than merit-based appointment of teachers, and a lack of political will. Addressing these challenges requires:

  • prioritising education sector reforms, and increasing budgetary allocations to the sector
  • making state schools geographically accessible 
  • exploring options to extend community-based primary education models to secondary level 
  • considering giving incentives for private schools to open in areas where the state cannot expand 
  • understanding the popularity of madrasas and why some quit the secular system in their favour.

Masooda Bano
Department of International Development and
Wolfson College, University of Oxford,
3 Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3TB, UK
T +44 1865 271924