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Fighting for girls’ education in Pakistan

Some parents marry girls off from as young as 10
Some parents marry girls off from as young as 10

Many girls in Pakistan are prevented from attending school, but women are increasingly speaking out publicly to change social attitudes.

It is common for girls in the Swat region of Pakistan to finish their education at the end of primary school. Some of these girls are prevented from going further in education because of poverty and conflict. But more often, it is the cultural attitudes of families which dictate the decision to remove girls from school.

Speaking in an interview with the Guardian, one of the former teachers of Malala Yousafzai, the young campaigner who survived an assassination attempt, talks about the Swat region of Pakistan. Mariam Khalique says she is “proud” of her home, but not of the fact that so many women and girls are deprived of an education there. For example, at the start of her teaching career, Ms Khalique worked in a school and college in Mingora where less than a third of the 1,000 pupils were girls.

The Pakistani teacher explains to the newspaper that many families fear girls will become “too independent” if they are educated. Ms Khalique adds that it is common for parents to tell teachers that “a girl’s place is at home”. Instead of keeping girls in school, parents often prefer to marry them off early, sometimes as young as 10 years of age. Early marriages are common in rural regions of Pakistan, where nationally more than one in five girls is married before the age of 18. Poverty can also be a factor in this decision, since girls are considered to be a financial burden.

Education brings dignity

Mariam Khalique will be attending a UNESCO conference this week to speak about the issue of girls’ education and call on world leaders to ensure every child has the chance to go to school. Her own teaching in the SWAT region of Pakistan has shown her “the dignity that education can offer”. She hopes her voice will add weight to UNESCO’s ‘Education for All’ campaign, which aims to highlight how denying girls equal access to education prevents communities and countries from developing to their full potential.

As an example, the Pakistani teacher talks about the situation of Pakistan today, where a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. Ms Khalique compares Pakistan to Vietnam, since the two countries used to be on an equal footing economically. But now, Vietnam’s economy has overtaken Pakistan’s and the teacher believes that one of the reasons is that girls and boys in Vietnam are educated equally. “Just imagine how life could change for [Pakistan] if all girls and women – one half of our population – were educated and financially empowered?” she says. That is a day she and many others in Pakistan long to see.

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