Thirteen-year-old Asma once dreamt of going to medical school.
"I wanted to become a doctor, so I could help my mother who suffers from severe headaches," she said, brandishing a mop ready to sweep the floor of the foyer in an up-market block of flats in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. "But I think that’s not possible now, because my parents are poor."
Asma does go to primary school, however, but her parents, both of whom are employed as domestic helps in different households, only manage to send her to a government school near their little community of domestic servants and municipality sweepers.
During vacations and other holidays, Asma must accompany her 28-year-old mother to work, so as to pick up "skills" considered essential by her parents, in order to contribute to her eventual husband’s likely meagre income, when it is time for her to get married in another year or so.
As a result, Asma and her three sisters have lagged behind their better-off peers: Asma is still in grade four, while children who manage to start going to school by the age of six, or, sometimes, five, usually manage to find themselves in grades eight or nine by the time they are her age.
Her two brothers, however, find themselves slotted in the right age-groups; Asma’s parents have taken pains to ensure that their sons do not fall behind, even as the daughters see their dreams slip farther away from them.
WOMEN AT A DISADVANTAGE
"An exploration into education as a major transition in young people’s lives provides a picture of stark gender differences above all else," a recent survey by the Population Council said, highlighting the fact that young women in Pakistan continue to lag behind their male counterparts in education.
The historic study, entitled "Adolescents and Youth in Pakistan: A Nationally Representative Survey", which took four years to complete, said the low pattern of enrolment for females was magnified at the lowest rung in the socioeconomic ladder.
"One outstanding finding of the report was the non-availability of primary girls' schools in rural areas after they’d reached a certain grade," Dr Zeba Sathar, the Population Council’s country director for Pakistan and one of the authors of the report, told IRIN in Islamabad.
The existence of this phenomenon is due to many reasons, some social, some governmental, Zakia Sarwar, who heads the English committee at the Higher Education Commission, told IRIN from the southern port city of Karachi. "In certain segments of the rural population, people used to want to keep their daughters at home. Now, even if they do want to educate them, they can usually find no girls' school in most rural areas after class three."
There is also a strong element of gender discrimination within society at large which has helped foster the notion that girls do not need to be educated, Navid Shahzad, a consultant with the newly established Beaconhouse National University, told IRIN from the eastern city of Lahore. "The irony is compounded by the fact that not only is the girl child discriminated against by members of her household, she is also discriminated against by the community at large," added Shahzad, who has been an educationalist since 1967.
"We are a young society with a phenomenal number of young people, but we’re still a society which will invariably look at men as the bread-winners, with women relegated to a secondary status," she asserted.
Successive polices geared towards the short-term rather than a long-term solution were responsible for the decline in the quality of education throughout the country, Sarwar said.
"Education seems to be more of a political matter rather than a social one. The policies keep on changing with every new government that comes in and a 'band-aid' kind of vision appears to be followed," she maintained.
While the government could easily be blamed for not supporting the evolution of a genuinely beneficial educational system, the lack of which means girls are likely to be even more marginalised, the real problem was the lack of a planning cadre, she stressed.
"The education scenario functions with stops and starts. Every government has prioritised different sectors within even the educational system, which means that there is no continuum within the education cycle," Shahzad said.
"This is not because we don’t have money, but because we don’t have the capacity to plan properly; the people in the process are not technically equipped. People are well-meaning, but don’t know the basics of what they want to apply," Sarwar said, adding that she felt that a specialised planning cadre was needed if the situation was to improve.
One of the reasons for Pakistan’s educational system not progressing as smoothly as one might have hoped was because of an anomaly right at the start, Sathar said. "In the fifties and sixties, we had a top-heavy educational structure with barely adequate primary school facilities, especially in the rural areas, and a system of higher education that was exemplary," she said, adding that whereas the primary school situation appeared to have improved slightly, higher education standards appeared to be on the decline.
"There has been neglect in preparing a broad base. Certainly the polices of the past have ensured a degree of damage to the entire system which will take some doing to overcome," she said, pointing out that one of the recommendations in the Population Council’s report was to ensure that girls and boys were provided with equal opportunities in education.
"If there is ever to be a concerted effort to improve the educational system, the curriculum needs to be overhauled and teachers need to be better trained across the spectrum," said Sarwar, who, as an integral member of the Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers, has herself been a trainer of English language teachers for the past two decades.
Shahzad concurred. "We talk a lot about education, we talk about donors coming in, we talk about future projects. But we never talk about teachers. Where have these teachers been trained? Are there any efforts to ensure that they do get training?" she asked.
"Teacher training should come in a big way," Sarwar stressed, adding that there seemed to be no plan to take advantage of the fact that the new generation of teachers seemed open to new ideas.
"Have we planned for them? No. We just go into everything with a gut feeling," she said, adding that she also felt it was essential to start teaching English from grade one. Although the language was still part of the curriculum from grade one, Sarwar said, it was not followed in practice at most schools, especially in the rural areas, initiating students to the language only in grade five, or even beyond.
CHANGE IN STATUS QUO
The guard was slowly changing now, however, with more parents inclined to bend their backs towards providing their children with at least basic education, Sathar said. "I think one of the things that set this into motion was a Social Action Plan document which, in 1992, stressed the need for building new schools - as many new schools as possible," she maintained.
"Had this been the policy 50 years ago, we would have been better off today," she said. "As it is now, we have experienced the unique phenomenon of parents coming to us themselves, sometimes from extremely conservative places such as Karak in the North West Frontier Province [NWFP] and telling us that they want their daughters educated: something that would have been unheard of a few years ago."
Change, definitely, is afoot, but at a very marginal pace, Shahzad said. "I’m an incurable optimist and would like to see the status quo change - which it is. But it’s occurring at such a slow pace so as to make it almost negligible," she added.
Sarwar said she thought it was good that there seemed to be some sort of revival of interest in promoting education in Pakistan but still had a word of caution for policy makers. "We have to remember: education is not like a factory; in formulating educational policy, if you take a wrong step, the first sign of it having gone wrong could come after 10 years," she said.