Marium Bibi, 38, is illiterate. Her parents did not send her to school because it was not the norm when she was growing up. Besides, the nearest school was more than six km away from her home in a village close to Jhang in southern Punjab, Pakistan.
But Marium - a domestic worker in Islamabad, and a mother of five - is sending her four daughters to school. "I will educate my daughters because I don't want them to live a life in depravity," she says.
Married to a linesman in the state-owned telephone company, Marium and her husband earn about Rs 10,000 (US$1=Rs61) a month between them. They have to stretch their meager resources to pay for the school fees, uniforms and books for their four daughters, who attend a government school nearby. The couple's only son goes to a religious school where education is free.
"I have realized the importance of education, and I will ensure that my daughters get an education even if we have to cut down on our meals," says Marium.
However, Marium's resolve is rare in a poverty-stricken country where the literacy rate is low; on an average it has shown an increase of about one per cent every year since 1981. A host of cultural and social inhibitions combined with economic factors are responsible for this dismal showing. Nearly half of Pakistan's 140 million people live in abject poverty.
According to the Ministry of Education, only 49 per cent of the population is literate; in 1981, the figure was 26.2 per cent. Not only the worst in the South Asian region, the existing literacy rate is far below the 70 per cent target Pakistan should have achieved by now as part of its commitment to "Education for All" at the Jomtien Conference in 1990.
"Overall results in the education sector remain disappointing. Pakistan's net primary enrolment rate is well below that of its neighbors in South Asia. Net primary enrolment rate is 65 per cent in Pakistan, 75 per cent in Bangladesh, 77 per cent in India, and close to 100 per cent in Sri Lanka," says the latest Economic Survey of Pakistan, an economic and social audit published by the government every year.
Officials say the main reasons for this are rising poverty and a drop in the quality of education. They also point out the significant gaps in enrolment rates between urban and rural areas. These gaps, they say, are the result of inequality in the distribution of resources, high teacher absenteeism, lack of access and higher opportunity costs for parents in rural areas.
"The total population of 10 years and above in Pakistan in 2001-02 is 104 million (54 million male and 50 million female). Of this, 68.2 million live in rural areas. The literacy rate for the 10+ age group is estimated to be 50.5 per cent (male 63 per cent, female 38 per cent). Rural and urban areas literacy rate is 30 per cent and 70 per cent respectively," according to the Economic Survey.
The figures speak volumes on the status of women and girls with respect to education. According to the Ministry of Education, only 29 per cent of females in the age group of 15 years and above are literate as compared to 55.3 per cent males.
It is only recently that the government has prepared a plan to reform the education sector and increase the literacy rate. The National Plan of Action on Education for All aims at achieving the goal of universal primary enrolment for males in 2010 and females in 2015. "Population of 10+ age group may increase to 146 million by the end of the plan in 2015. Literacy rate is planned to increase from existing 49 per cent to 86 per cent in the next 12 years," says the document, which has three components - Primary Education, Adult Literacy and Early Childhood Education.
The architect of the education sector reforms, Federal Minister for Education Zubaida Jalal, attaches a high importance to female education. Therefore, the plan of action has a special focus on female education, in terms of both primary level enrolment and adult literacy. "Investment in girls' education is particularly important as it has so much positive impact on family health, wellbeing and economic development. Mothers who have received education will ensure that their children get education, girls no less than boys," says Jalal.
However, the ambitious plan requires huge financial resources to achieve its objectives. The total cost estimated for these reforms is Rs 430 billion. Critics say it is a huge undertaking against the backdrop of low spending by the government on social sectors. Almost 70 per cent of the total revenues go to defense and debt servicing. On the average, Pakistan allocates 8 per cent of the national budget on education annually, while UNESCO recommends 20 per cent of the national budget for education in developing countries like Pakistan.
The Ministry of Education says the government will mobilize Rs 178 billion from its own resources, while the rest will be sought from international development partners, bilateral and multilateral agencies. But this seems a tall order in the rapidly changing geo-strategic situation in which international support is closely linked to a country's agreement to follow the agenda set by the only superpower.
However, women's rights activists feel administrative interventions will not work unless there is a vigorous effort to eliminate the social discrimination that marginalizes women at the family, community and societal levels. "The resolve for women's education is not new...It has never worked as we have always ignored the underlying issues," said Kaneez Zehra, a women's rights activist in Islamabad.
Women activists say the low female literacy rate is a glaring manifestation of gender disparities that arise out of the tribal, feudal and patriarchal structures that perpetuate stereotyped roles for girls and women.
The Ministry of Women's Development agrees, as is apparent from one of its documents, on the causes of high illiteracy among women. "Together with marriage at an early age, early and frequent pregnancies, large family size and perception of limited reproductive and domestic roles for women place restrictions on their mobility and participation in the productive processes and decision-making. More specifically, they inhibit the participation of girls and women in training programs."
A spokesperson for the Ministry suggests that female literacy be looked at in the context of unequal access and inadequate opportunities. "We need to promote a policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective into all policies and programs so that before decisions are taken, an analysis is made of
the effects on women and men respectively."