Islamabad - Forced marriages are a major obstacle in accessing girls’ right to education in rural areas of Pakistan, said Sameena Nazir, Executive Director of Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy (PODA), at an event organised to underscore the importance of making practical steps to implement article 25 (a) of the Constitution of Pakistan.

The event was also organised by PODA to celebrate Malala’s birthday in July. She welcomed the recent steps taken by the government of Punjab and Sindh to criminalise early and forced marriages as it will reduce denial of girls’ rights.

The event was organized here at National Library Pakistan by Pakistani Alliance of Rural Women for Action and Zenith (PARWAZ), a project of PODA, in collaboration with the public affairs section of the US Embassy in Islamabad.

The event also paid tributes to activist and educationist Malala Yousufzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner from Pakistan. The seminar was attended by over 70 participants, which included teachers, students, social activists, government and civil society members, and diplomats.

Maaham Mirza, a nine-year-old student from USA, stole everyone’s heart by making a passionate appeal “Please speak up for girl’s right to education.” She said education is the basic right of all girls and no one can take away girls’ right to education.

The highlight of the event was a thought-provoking speech by 11-year-old Amna Abeer from Chakwal in which she said it is the duty of the government, the society and all the people to ensure that girls are not discriminated and have full and equal access to education. She said, “I ask my government to give me education that makes me courageous.” She also read a poem for Malala and wrote her a happy birthday card.

District Social Officer Tanveer Safdar said no society can progress if girls are not educated and in today’s time gender discrimination is not an option.”

Baela Raza Jamil, Director Programmes of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, said the young people are full of dreams and aspirations. It is a crime to deny them a bright future. She regretted that although many laws are passed for making education a right and policies are made on paper but necessary infrastructure and resources are not put in place to make them a reality for the children of Pakistan. She said it is critical that those who deny children their right to education are punished so that state authority is asserted. She said the government must make a priority to invest in education for all children.

Saba Ghouri, Senior Gender Officer from US Embassy in Islamabad, said Malala’s courage and resilience are a driving force for girls and women all over the world. She said that USAID is helping and establishing schools all over Pakistan. She said the real indicator of progress of any country is its educated people, especially women.”

Maryam Bibi, Chief Executive Officer of Khwendo Kor Peshawar, said, “The world needs to listen to Malala when she says we need more pens and books not more guns.” She said this world has seen enough bloodshed and there is need to give peace a chance. She said.

“We must remember that Islam insists on education for all but unfortunately our society has not accepted this basic message of Islam and many illiterate elders are denying girls their right to education in the name of culture and anti-women practices such as exchange marriages even though they have been declared illegal in Pakistan.”

Dr Ghazala Anwar, Professor of Islamic Studies in California University, said access to education on equality basis is a must and teaching of critical thinking has to be a part of the curriculum so that there is maximum learning for children of all groups in Pakistan.

The meeting ended with a message of optimism by educationist Bela Raza Jamil who said in her conclusion that youth will change the face of Pakistan. Malala is an inspiration for everyone all over the world and Pakistan will change when we will change.