Gender unit

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE Sindh government’s apathy towards gender inequity in education is almost proverbial. I was, therefore, taken aback when the minister for literacy and education in the province quoted the age-old adage: “When you educate a boy you educate an individual, but when you educate a girl you educate a family.”

It left me wondering why his party which has been in power in Sindh for a decade failed to achieve 100 per cent literacy in the province. Has wisdom been late in dawning on our policymakers?

The occasion for this wise quote was the inauguration of a gender unit in the education department with the proclaimed objective of “mainstreaming gender within the education system”. This unit owes its birth to the push it has received from the Gender Working Group (GWG) comprising members of civil society (including the Indus Resource Centre) who are strong advocates of gender parity, and a preponderance of government functionaries, ostensibly supporters of this cause.

In Sindh, 61pc of girls are out of school.

The unit will show positive results, we have been promised. The IRC’s role will be vital in sustaining the unit and ensuring it does not stagnate. These measures come at a time when the gender imbalance in education in Sindh has fallen to an abysmal level.

The Sindh government’s own statistics related to gender in education are appalling. Female literacy in the province, already low at 47pc, is only 23pc in the rural areas. But the gender disparity has even worse implications for the future. In 2015, the net enrolment of girls in school stood at 40pc compared with 60pc for boys. In the province 61pc of girls are out of school.

Will funding from Oxfam and motivational/advisory input from GWG with the IRC as the driving force change the situation? One can only hope it will. The IRC has carried out many pro-women projects in the province and has also been working with the government by adopting its schools, though official grants cannot always be taken for granted.

Then one may ask, why this scepticism? The task of implementing the recommendations will be in the government’s own hands. Given its past performance and the profusion of bodies to promote women’s rights in the policymaking structure, I find it difficult to feel optimistic.

The panel discussion at the unit’s inauguration identified a number of essential measures that in principle are perfect. For instance, the need to revise textbooks and make them gender sensitive and to build and make accessible more girls’ secondary schools were mentioned. It was recognised that the numerous women friendly laws that have been adopted must be implemented and ways and means found to enhance the strength of female teachers in schools to encourage an increase in the female net enrolment rate. Toilets and boundary walls in girls’ schools are also conceded as crucial factors in reducing girls’ dropout rates. But isn’t this familiar territory?

Some of the recommended changes have been made over a period of time, albeit in fits and starts. What has not been mentioned in the Sindh Education Sector Plan is the poor state of education — both in terms of content and pedagogy — that makes education so irrelevant for the common man.

It hardly enhances the ethical values of students or even qualifies them for suitable jobs because our system of education imparts little knowledge or information. Above all, it doesn’t teach a child to think critically. What incentive is there for parents to send their children — more so daughters — to school?

A lot of advocacy has been done for education but when the gains promised do not materialise, the advocacy sounds hollow and unconvincing. Even the children feel cheated. During many school visits that I have made in my wanderings in low-income areas, I have found that children are being pulled out of school to help their families. Girls look after their younger siblings and do the housework while boys go off to work in shops and with mechanics. Thus the gender parity improves at the higher level but school enrolment drops drastically.

This shows how important it is to treat the development of people as a composite whole. With all social sectors so badly neglected — be it population, healthcare or any other — focusing on education alone can be counterproductive, and development becomes a painfully slow and lopsided process.

The Alice in Wonderland scenario that emerges at the end of the day is of a person running hard but not being able to make progress. While schools are being built, babies continue to be born in large numbers and little girls are pulled out of school in droves to look after them. Of course we always remain short of schools because the school enrolment ratio goes down while the population growth rate keeps galloping.