- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

KARACHI, Pakistan | Yasmeen Khan, a mother of three, leaned down over her lesson book with steely concentration.

“I could sit outside, or I can be here and learn to read,” she said after attending one of her children’s classes. “Of course I will try to learn.” Mrs. Khan was not alone. Several other mothers sat in the back of their daughters’ classroom, eager to master rudimental literacy.

In the slums far from the manicured lawns of Islamabad, the cultural tumult of Lahore and the bustling commercial center just a half-hour’s drive from this cramped neighborhood called Gulistan Colony, life can be unimaginably hard for a woman who cannot read.

She must memorize the dosages of her children’s medicine because the labels mean nothing to her. She must be careful from whom she borrows because a $40 loan from the wrong man could cost her a daughter, and she must be very lucky in marriage or she might end up laboring in backbreaking or degrading work.

A grown woman without an education is like a young woman without a dowry: socially handicapped, with limited options. This is especially true in countries such as Pakistan, where poverty and corruption have severely limited government services.

“Educating girls is such a luxury,” said Mehnaz Aziz, director of the Children’s Global Network, a consultancy that works with the United Nations and also receives U.S. funding. “Quality education is a privilege here, not a right. If something has to go, it’s the girls’ education that will go.”

Roughly half of Pakistan’s 173 million citizens know how to read, according to the CIA World Factbook. Sixty-three percent of the men are literate, compared with only 36 percent of the women.

The gap between male and female literacy ranks Pakistan 127th out of 130 countries surveyed last year by the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum.

The situation here looked more promising a year ago, Ms. Aziz said. That was before a spike in terrorist bombings hurt Pakistan’s foreign reputation and internal stability and before the global economic downturn forced the government to turn to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan to pay interest on its foreign debts.

Despite pockets of progress, “if you look from a bird’s eye view, people are not bothered with girls’ education,” Ms. Aziz said sadly. “They are more worried about how to feed their family.”

Maryam Khan, a cousin of Yasmeen Khan, said she was desperate for her daughters to learn to read. She encourages the eldest, Sadia, 14, to read the labels on every package that comes into the house, to read aloud from her school books and to show off her prowess for visitors.

It is as though she is afraid Sadia’s gift might vanish unless it is displayed often.

“I married very young, and my in-laws did not want me to go to school,” said Mrs. Khan, a rope-thin woman whose smile etches deep wrinkles across her face. “I wanted to, but did not know to fight. It was scary and I had no confidence.” Beaming at Sadia, who is dutifully reading a medicine label for visitors, she adds, “My daughters will have the confidence to do what they want.”

A country of intense slums, crushing poverty and sometimes oppressive faith, Pakistan is handicapped by an educational system that even former government ministers don’t energetically defend.

The state does not have the money to improve schools in poor and crowded areas, nor can it invest in basic technology. Teachers might be only marginally better educated than their students, some of whom must sit in the hallways because their classrooms are so crowded.

That is not unusual in poor countries, nor is it necessarily a barrier between students and their studies.

In Pakistan, however, culture is also complicit in keeping girls undereducated. Free religious schools, called madrassas, are based on the Koran and often emphasize memorization over reading, writing and arithmetic. Even relatively secular families may opt to send their children to madrassas, where all expenses are covered. There is also the convenience factor: Nearly every village has a mosque but not necessarily a school.

In a country where one child in eight is informally employed in brute labor, carpet weaving, domestic service and the like, schooling will necessarily suffer. The eldest girl is frequently required to stay at home to care for the elderly or younger siblings.

Former President Pervez Musharraf expanded free public education in Pakistan, but the government still spends only 2.6 percent of its gross domestic product on education, according to a UNICEF report. That’s less than half of what the Czech Republic spends in percentage terms, the study said.

Under a recent Pakistani law, at least half of all money expended on education must go to schooling for girls. But many families are unable to afford the notebooks, uniforms and food to keep a daughter in school.

Among poorer and more patriarchal families, boys are seen as the stronger investment for the future, more deserving of whatever money can be spared for education.

In this culture, a woman’s best asset is beauty and purity, which a family can leverage to match her with a promising husband. He, in turn, will be expected to provide for both their families.

That often means boys must become skilled, rather than educated.

Teachers and education professionals here say that boys are periodically pulled out of school for a few weeks to work the harvest, and many return to school unable to cope with the material they missed.

Other children become bored or frustrated, and their parents allow them to work instead of encouraging them to get the education they themselves are lacking.

Little boys might drive donkey carts and help their fathers grow or sell produce.

Little girls are taught embroidery skills, and the earlier their fingers learn the minute knotting and stitching, the more beautiful and better-paying their needlework will be.

Mrs. Aziz said the problem is worst in impoverished and deeply religious areas, where girls are all but certain to raise children rather than work.

But dangers abound for a family in which no one can read.

It is not unusual to borrow a bit of money between harvests to keep a family fed. But the contract may outline usurious interest and a horrific price to pay for falling behind: “winni,” or the delivery of a daughter, according to newspaper publisher and parliamentarian Humaira Awais Shahid, who sits on the Punjabi Assembly’s committee on illiteracy and sponsored a law outlawing private money-lending.

The educational system in Pakistan has improved over the previous decade, in some areas quite noticeably, said Nilofar Bakhtiar, a former minister of women’s affairs for Mr. Musharraf’s political party.

But she acknowledged that progress was not sufficient, and said she was worried about the fate of Pakistan’s illiterate girls.

“The state system has not met their needs,” Mrs. Bakhtiar said. “In rural and many town areas, the schools are not so good. The people are hungry for better education,” including family literacy sections, to cater to mothers and older children.

Educational groups have seen the shortcomings of public schools and some have taken steps to address them.

The Central Asia Institute (CAI), a nonprofit organization that works in the region but is based in Bozeman, Mont., has set up schools in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and the northwestern city of Peshawar, where girls as young as 5 have room to run around, eat nutritious lunches and learn English, Islamic studies, science, math and the home arts.

The schools are bare-bones but the institute is financed, in part, by sales of the book “Three Cups of Tea” by CAI executive director Greg Mortenson. In time, CAI officials say, they hope to add a library and laboratory and expand the program to other remote regions and underserved towns.

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