(In this article assumed names are used and any relevance will be a coincidence only)
The Citizen Foundation (TCF) provided me with an opportunity to participate in its Rahbar program and spend six consecutive Saturdays with the school girls of the 8th standard. The school was located in an underdeveloped area of Rawalpindi where I had to teach soft skills to my mentees. The program brought a tremendous impact on my perception of women’s education in Pakistan!
Pakistan, the land where women constitute 49.2 percent of the total population, has not been very kind to this gender. The latest report of the Global Gender Gap Index bolsters this stance. It revealed that Pakistan is the world’s second worst country in terms of gender equality, only better than Afghanistan, a war-torn territory. The reasons behind this appalling gender gap can be many: political, economic, educational, etc. However, the pain-striking fact that I observed in a TCF school, and that requires immediate remedy. It is the triple marginalization of adolescent girls dwelling in an impoverished part of the city.
The Rahbar cycle, which is a youth mentorship program, was based on the mentoring of girls aged 12-15 in an unacademic capacity. We, the mentors, had to introduce them to the significant lessons of gratitude and patience. The elements that seem very essential to remain sane in such a wretched state. Initially, I was very glad to grab an opportunity that will enable me to relive my school memories. On top of that, teach positive approaches to my little proteges without worrying about homework. Little did I know that at the end of the program, the anguish would put me into dismay for closely observing the miserable circumstances of these young individuals.
I was asked to provide a conducive environment to the children so they can share the incidents or ideas that they usually do not like to discuss with their teachers or even with their peers for fear of getting reprimanded or humiliated. I had to win their trust to make them speak. By showing my tender-hearted nature and attention, the barrier of strangeness was eliminated and the girls began to spell out. Upon listening to them, I came across three levels of marginalization that the children were facing. Each level was only aggravating the lives of these vulnerable girls.
Firstly, the girls were marginalized for being children. This factor made them easy prey for sexual abusers and for those who commit domestic violence. It might feel like an unsettling shock but it is a brazen truth that the latter act seemed a norm in that community since many did not show any grimness when a timid girl talked about it in a wavering voice. I heard words dripping agony:
“My father regularly beats my mother. There are times when I have to break my prayer to save her. Then, he punishes me as well for intervening,” told Kiran amidst weeping.
The girl was a lonely child and did not have any close friends. She abreacted in front of a listener who would not form a prejudice against her for the bitter life she was having at such a little age.
By the same token, childhood seemed a curse for these girls when they revealed that they were unable to vehemently raise their voices for their right to education. A couple of girls told that many members of their families, including one of their parents, still do not want them to go to school. They think that the girls will be of much help if they just stay at home and participate in domestic chores. But just because of the support and resilience of one parent (usually their mothers), they were sitting in a classroom.
The second marginalization haunts the children in the form of poverty. As mentioned earlier, these students live in homes like slums, thus, TCF charges a very meager fee i.e. 100PKR (USD 0.45), and bears all the other educational expenses to foster good education in such underprivileged areas. Nevertheless, poverty rears a myriad of ills subsuming ignorance and pigeonholes. In Pakistan, many people, especially the poor, deem education a waste of time and resources even for men. Consequently, who would show this much munificence for the women who are the residents of places like Kachii abaadis? To make matter worse, the area where these children live is quite hostile to people. The bumpy pavements and the harsh life in slums have already exhausted these feeble and malnourished girls.
“I have to walk for nearly one and a half hours daily to cover the distance between my home and the school and vice versa,” told Saliha.
Furthermore, the security issues supplement the inhabitants’ dejection. One of the children, Sehrish, unfolded that “the crime rate is very high in this area. Drug dealers and addicts roam freely, robberies are prevalent and many cases of kidnapping have been materialized.”
Being a resident of such an abortive and insecure area is itself a massive adversity. It was not unsurprising then that the education of girls was considered a privilege there and never a right.
In the most daunting way, the spectre of gender inequality exerts the third degree of marginalization on these children. The gravity of the situation manifested itself when I heard the harrowing incidents of harassment and molestation from many girls.
“When I go to the tuition center, boys sitting in the streets begin to say vulgar and disrespectful things. I get scared but I cannot tell about it to anyone, because everyone will start blaming me for that and maybe my brothers will stop me from going to the school and tuition center. So, I have to stay silent and endure,” Rahima shared her painful truth.
This reality hit me hard that for a fundamental right like education, girls of my country are paying sacrifices tenfold to their ages. Similarly, the stereotypes attached to women’s education and financial independence due to religious fanaticism and radicalization in Pakistan further hinder their paths. Most of the women who seek an academic path are constantly reminded that they should be highly beholden for the education they are acquiring.
This context and problems lead reasonable minds to ask: how can we overcome such nuanced and deeply-rooted predicaments associated with the education of poor female children?
What can be done?
The state-backed support can be the most effective remedy. Providing the families with a stipend for sending their girl children to schools will release the poor children from the unjustified sense of obligation. The importance of parent counselling cannot be overstated but is sometimes disregarded. It will help the parents to understand the fruits education can bring in terms of intellectual development and financial stability. Last but not the least, mentoring adolescent boys is also inevitable. Reckoning girls as equal partners in all the social, economic and domestic domains can forestall the deleterious effects of patriarchy and negative masculinism.
To recapitulate, the school-going girls inhabiting the slums are in sheer misery and have been going through three degrees of marginalization. Their vulnerabilities for being children, poor, and females plunge them into the abyss of triple marginalization. Instead of ghettoizing them further, inclusivity through government policies, and counseling of parents and the latest male progeny will help cultivate women’s education and mitigate gender discrimination.
The writer is a recent graduate with an interest in Literature and World affairs.