Islamabad: A teenage activist recently shot and critically wounded by the Taliban risked her life to attend school, but the threat from the militant group is just one of many obstacles Pakistani girls face in getting an education.
Others include rampant poverty, harassment and the government’s failure to make education spending a priority.
Both sexes have suffered from the lack of funding, but girls, who have somewhat lower rates of literacy and school attendance, are in a particularly perilous position.
The October 9 attack on 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai, who is hospitalised in Britain, showed that the barriers to girls’ education are highest in Pakistan’s northwest, where the Taliban are strongest. The militants have blown up hundreds of schools and kidnapped and shot education activists like Malala.
The need for education is stark: Only 40 percent of Pakistani girls 15 or younger are literate, according to the United Nations.
Roughly 50 percent of girls are enrolled in school, according to a report by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child.
Only one in five students is female in the semiautonomous tribal region along the Afghan border, the Taliban’s main sanctuary in the country, according to the UN.
The Taliban and their allies are opposed to education that isn’t rooted in their hardline interpretation of Islam and object to women working outside the home or travelling without a male escort.
Militants destroyed or damaged at least 943 schools in the tribal region and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province from 2009 to 2011, according to Pakistani government figures.
Some were targeted because they were used by the military, but many of the attacks were motivated by the Taliban’s opposition to girls’ education and schooling that doesn’t follow their strict interpretation of Islam.
“The Taliban have scared people,” said Hamid Ullah Khan, a teacher from Lower Dir in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “This is also one of the main reasons that women are not studying at schools in good number.”
The government has worked with the international community to rebuild some of the schools targeted by the Taliban. But the attacks dealt a blow to an education system that was already in shambles across the country, in part because of the low level of government spending.
The education crisis is apparent in the schools’ infrastructure. Only 39 percent of schools have electricity, and only 62 percent have bathrooms, according to the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child.