Low female literacy rates have lead to the lowest female labor participation in all of South Asia

Sep 10 - 16, 2007

Women's education in Pakistan has had a difficult history, mired in cultural and religious restrictions and taboos since before the Partition. Our own highly esteemed founder of Aligarh University, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was not in favour of women's formal education. "Sir Syed Ahmad Khan seriously opposed the modern education of girls and insisted that their education should be restricted to domestic tasks. He staunchly opposed women's education in public schools, despite the fact that he was considered a figure of enlightenment, progress and modernity," says Dr. Rubina Saigol, an experienced researcher in education in an interview with Daily Times. The attitude of our other leaders such as Allama Iqbal seems not to differ too much from this mode of thinking.

In many parts of the country, especially MMA strongholds, women segregation in education is a must. Not only does the necessity of separate schools / colleges for women cost more, but it also puts women at a disadvantage to men in regards to access to better trained faculty and facilities. This arrangement also leaves women (as well as men) less able to function well in unsegregated professional environments. In Islamisized areas, traveling long distances by females to study is also frowned upon and discouraged. The lack of adequate and safe public transport only exasperates the problem.


Improving women's education has been shown to contribute directly to reducing poverty, increasing health standards, improving economic growth, along with many other social advantages. Early day economists and anti-feminists were against women's professional education claiming that it would increase unemployment among the economy's male population. Microeconomic data shows these fears to be unfounded and for the opposite to be true: inclusive economies are less likely to suffer from unemployment. Increased female labor population has also been directly linked to greater Foreign Direct Investment in export oriented countries. Textile industries for finished products in countries such as Bangladesh and Mexico mainly employ female labor. Bangladesh is well ahead of Pakistan as an exporter of textiles and it has a female labor participation of 60 percent. Pakistan's participation of female labor on the other hand is 18.9 percent, the lowest in South Asia according to Pakistan's Economic Survey 2006-07.

Primary and secondary education levels have grown substantially in countries like Bangladesh, India and China over the years, with disparities between male and female enrollment levels also decreasing. Even if a large proportion of these children do not carry on studying to secondary and higher education levels, skills of reading and writing, and simple arithmetic can improve their lives substantially.

The case of Bangladesh where women have led the struggle against poverty with the help of microfinance provides insight to the advantages of primary education. 89% of children aged 6-10 years are enrolled in school, with 49 percent being female*. By being able to compute basic costs and benefits and retain logs of their transactions, women do not have to rely on their literate male relatives.

In China where the literacy rates are phenomenal (93% of children aged 7-11 years are enrolled; female literary rate of 78%)*, female labor force dominates the factory assembly lines, the backbone of China's huge offshore industry.

Pakistan on the other hand has the lowest proportion of children enrolled in school: only 60% of children aged 5-9 years*. 40% of these children are female, a proportion that substantially decreases in secondary and tertiary education levels.

Low levels of education directly lead to lower work productivity and overall health. Fertility rates have been seen to remarkably decrease in countries where education levels rose. In Bangladesh fertility rates decreased from 6.1 to 2.9 between 1980 and 2001. Whereas in India they have dropped from 5 to 2.9. An educated woman is more likely to have knowledge about contraceptive methods and the direct benefits of a smaller family.


Government of Pakistan has allocated 2.42% to public education in the budget 2007-08, with a promise of increasing allocation to 4% of the budget not being followed through. In the year 2006, China spent 13% of its total national budget on education while India spent 12%. A lot of the development of the educational sector has actually been done by the help of US grants. Educational assistance by the US for the year 2007-08 will be Rs 3.9 billion, a lot of which is utilized directly by USAID in the construction and furnishing of schools rather than trusting government officials of utilizing the aid money properly.

This education failure by the government has time and again been pointed out to lead to situations such as the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa fiasco. The general public when seeing no other option would readily send their children to these all-expenses paid madrassahs. The students that these religious seminaries churn out, though the majority will not be violent and will have respect for rule of law, they cannot be seen to take the country on the path of economic growth and nation building.

*South and East Asia Regional Report, UNESCO Institute for Statistics (Survey 2002)