ISLAMABAD - With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) deadline for achieving universal primary education fast approaching, despite much of the improvement in schooling outcome, universal primary education is still a long way away for all girls in Pakistan, as only 53 per cent of all girls aged five to nine are enrolled in primary school.

‘Even though girls’ schooling saw greater improvement than that of boys over the last decade, the gender gap in education rates remain high and both boys and girls remain far from reaching universal levels. More worrying is the recent slowdown in improvement in education rates, particularly at the primary level. Unsurprisingly, even the limited data on the supply of schools shows a slowdown in the increase in the number of schools’ highlights a recent report on girls’ schooling in Pakistan.

The study titled ‘The Power of Girls’ Schooling for Young Women’s Empowerment and Reproductive Health’ has been conducted by the Population Council. It says that in the 1990s, there was no improvement in primary enrolment rates. At the turn of the century, however, Pakistan finally began to make progress and primary net enrolment rates (NERs) increased by 15 percent in the last ten years. Much of the increase in primary NERs occurred between 2001 and 2006, a time period when girls’ primary enrolment increased from 38 to 48 per cent. Private school enrolment accounted for most of the improvements in overall enrolment.

‘Unfortunately, the rise in primary enrolment (particularly in private schools) slowed down in the next five years. Between the last two rounds of the PSLMS (2008/09 and 2010/11), there has been hardly any change in enrolment statistics - only 53 per cent of all girls aged five to nine are enrolled in primary school. Rural enrolment continues to lag behind urban enrolment, particularly for girls. At 48 per cent, rural girls have lower primary NERs than urban girls or rural boys’.

Regarding secondary education of girls it says as expected, the status of secondary education is much worse, if not abysmal. Although secondary enrolment rates for girls have been increasing since the mid 1990s (unlike enrolment rates for boys, which declined in the 1990s) and girls are catching up with boys, this increase has been very slow, and less than a third (29 percent) of girls aged 10-14 years are enrolled in secondary school in 2011. Rural areas have much lower secondary education than urban areas, and again, rural girls are the most disadvantaged with only 22 percent enrolled in secondary school.

The study suggest that the education sector reforms in Punjab need to take into account the disparate situations between north/central Punjab and southern Punjab. Rural Sindh, plagued by ghost schools and recent natural disasters, is the worst off among all regions in the three provinces. The Sindh Government needs to prioritize effective provision of education, focusing on improving the political and administrative aspects of the education system. The issues facing Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa are somewhat different - girls’ primary education in rural areas has made remarkable progress and KPK has the smallest urban-rural differentials. However, gender disparities in the province remain high. In fact, KPK is the only province among the three where the gender gap persists in urban areas.

Some key ingredients for improving the schooling environment are to have a public girls’ school with all levels up to the secondary level available within a short travelling distance, recommends the study. A minimal number of 3-4 primary and middle-plus schools are probably sufficient for a community to increase girls’ enrollments to 70 percent. ‘However, income levels and affordability will remain an issue. For many poorer households, subsidies, scholarship, and conditional cash transfers may be effective in minimizing enrollment differentials by income. This will ultimately bode well for universal primary education. The presence of female teachers, textbooks, and toilets are also essential for higher enrollments’.

Dr. Zeba Sathar, Country Director of Population Council, maintained a girl’s level of schooling is one of the strongest predictors of the age at which she will marry and of how much autonomy she will have within her new home. ‘For timing of marriage, we found that in our rural sample, even primary education makes a difference, delaying marriage by a significant amount of time. For greater autonomy within marriage, the real change occurs when she has beyond middle-level schooling.

Women’s education has a strong impact on the age at which women begin childbearing. The length of education impacts age of childbearing directly through its effect on timing of marriage. Additionally, women’s years of schooling have direct and positive associations with pregnancy care, smaller family size, fertility control practices, and greater decision-making regarding childbearing, she added. Contraceptive use, antenatal care, and delivery care are outcomes that are influenced by individual female educational levels.

She stressed that investing in the schooling environment of communities will not only impact reproductive health outcomes for young girls’ transitioning to adulthood, but will also impact reproductive experiences of slightly older women.