October 10, 2020
While the lockdown has taken aback most people by the unprecedented amounts of restrictions it has placed on their mobility and the constant surveillance it has led to, there is one segment of the society that isn't completely unfamiliar to this way of life and that is women and girls. For women & girls, especially living in a country like Pakistan, life has always entailed heavy restrictions on mobility, monitoring of their whereabouts and being constantly told that the world outside the house is unsafe for them. Due to a combination of these socio-cultural barriers and governance failures, over 12.6 million girls in Pakistan were already out of school before the global pandemic broke out. According to UNESCO's recent records, over 20 million girls have been affected due to school closures in Pakistan which is a catastrophically high number and sets back the country's progress with regards to girls' education by many years.[i]
As COVID-19 hit Pakistan and rattled the nation with its widely pervasive impact, all educational institutions were immediately and indefinitely shut down which meant children were forced to give up a major part of their life and make peace with this new and unfathomable way of life. For girls, the challenges have been compounded since staying at home increases their domestic responsibilities and role in unpaid housework and puts them at a higher risk of early marriages especially in lower-income households due to economic necessity. According to United Nations Population Fund, the pandemic could cause over 13 million more girls to be subjected to early marriages which drastically reduces, if not completely eliminates their chances of ever returning to school.[ii] With increasing financial insecurity, it is highly likely that families struggling to make ends meet will first and foremost, prioritize sending their boys to school instead of girls and secondly, they will choose to engage their children in some form of economic activity instead of having to spend on their education.
While the Pakistan's shift towards e-learning and online digital educational platforms has helped reduce the overall impact of the crisis on education, it has also unveiled the existing gender based inequalities in the education system and has further exacerbated accessibility issues in education for women and girls. Along with an unavailability of broadband access in majority areas of the country, cultural and social barriers restrict girls' and women's access to any form of information technology. According to a GSMA survey, merely 20% women own a smartphone in the country and they're 49% less likely to use mobile internet as opposed to men.[iii] These issues not only render the online learning as an ineffective solution to the learning crisis but deems it a luxury that predominantly caters to a very exclusive and privileged segment of the society. The government has introduced an initiative called Teleschool which is a tv channel dedicated towards airing an hour long lesson for every grade starting from primary to high school. However, the authorities are aware that it doesn't completely address the problem of accessibility either considering lower-income households that make up a large part of the country's population cannot afford a television. Even in families where children do have access to the teleschool, the girls are often engaged in household chores during the hours of transmission, again putting them at a disadvantage.
It is important that the government's approach during and post the current crisis is comprehensive and gender responsive, taking into account the existing challenges for girls in the education system as well as the issues that are yet to arise in their re-enrollment process post COVID-19. As projected in a recent report by Malala Fund, an estimated 10 million more secondary school aged-girls could be out of school as a result of the pandemic.[iv] As much as the authorities need to focus on the current impact of COVID-19 on education, there is a need to deliberate on the post-COVID measures with a specific focus on gender responsive strategies. It is imperative that both federal and provincial governments invest time in formulating fiscal policies that do not let education spending become a low priority amidst crises, as we've witnessed in the past. Additionally, the government must collect gender-disaggregated data on reenrollment of students to determine the number of dropouts and ensure the educational institutions are properly equipped to ensure children's' safety and health, so parents are not deterred to send their children, especially girls, to school.
[iv] Malala Fund 2019. Girls' Education and COVID-19. What past shocks can teach us about mitigating the impact of pandemics.