Literacy Legacy; Mothers, Activists Seek Better Education for Girls in Pakistan

Article excerpt


KARACHI, Pakistan -- Yasmeen Khan, a mother of three, leaned down over her lesson book with steely concentration. I could sit outside, or I can be here and learn to read, she said after attending one of her children's classes. Of course I will try to learn. Mrs. Khan was not alone. Several other mothers sat in the back of their daughters' classroom, eager to master rudimental literacy.

In the slums far from the manicured lawns of Islamabad, the cultural tumult of Lahore and the bustling commercial center just a half-hour's drive from this cramped neighborhood called Gulistan Colony, life can be unimaginably hard for a woman who cannot read.

She must memorize the dosages of her children's medicine because the labels mean nothing to her. She must be careful from whom she borrows because a $40 loan from the wrong man could cost her a daughter, and she must be very lucky in marriage or she might end up laboring in backbreaking or degrading work.

A grown woman without an education is like a young woman without a dowry: socially handicapped, with limited options. This is especially true in countries such as Pakistan, where poverty and corruption have severely limited government services.

Educating girls is such a luxury, said Mehnaz Aziz, director of the Children's Global Network, a consultancy that works with the United Nations and also receives U.S. funding. Quality education is a privilege here, not a right. If something has to go, it's the girls' education that will go.

Roughly half of Pakistan's 173 million citizens know how to read, according to the CIA World Factbook. Sixty-three percent of the men are literate, compared with only 36 percent of the women.

The gap between male and female literacy ranks Pakistan 127th out of 130 countries surveyed last year by the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum.

The situation here looked more promising a year ago, Ms. Aziz said. That was before a spike in terrorist bombings hurt Pakistan's foreign reputation and internal stability and before the global economic downturn forced the government to turn to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan to pay interest on its foreign debts.

Despite pockets of progress, if you look from a bird's eye view, people are not bothered with girls' education, Ms. Aziz said sadly. They are more worried about how to feed their family.

Maryam Khan, a cousin of Yasmeen Khan, said she was desperate for her daughters to learn to read. She encourages the eldest, Sadia, 14, to read the labels on every package that comes into the house, to read aloud from her school books and to show off her prowess for visitors.

It is as though she is afraid Sadia's gift might vanish unless it is displayed often.

I married very young, and my in-laws did not want me to go to school, said Mrs. Khan, a rope-thin woman whose smile etches deep wrinkles across her face. I wanted to, but did not know to fight. It was scary and I had no confidence. Beaming at Sadia, who is dutifully reading a medicine label for visitors, she adds, My daughters will have the confidence to do what they want.

A country of intense slums, crushing poverty and sometimes oppressive faith, Pakistan is handicapped by an educational system that even former government ministers don't energetically defend.

The state does not have the money to improve schools in poor and crowded areas, nor can it invest in basic technology. Teachers might be only marginally better educated than their students, some of whom must sit in the hallways because their classrooms are so crowded.

That is not unusual in poor countries, nor is it necessarily a barrier between students and their studies.

In Pakistan, however, culture is also complicit in keeping girls undereducated. Free religious schools, called madrassas, are based on the Koran and often emphasize memorization over reading, writing and arithmetic. …