A shameful gap

Pakistan ranks among the lowest of the low when it comes to bridging the gender gap. Robert Hathaway lays out the consequences of glaring inequality when it hinders the education of girls and young women

A shameful gap
A year ago, many Pakistanis were mortified when the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) - which measures gender equality in the key areas of health, education, economy and politics - ranked Pakistan next to last in the world. Pakistan stood 141st out of 142 countries, surpassing only Yemen.

Alas, things have gotten even grimmer for Pakistani women. The recently released GGGI for 2015 shows Pakistan placing 144th out of 145 ranked countries, again ahead only of Yemen, and trailing such problematic countries as Ethiopia (124), Saudi Arabia (134), and Mali (137) – none of which are known for their enlightened treatment of women. Shockingly, even women in war-devastated Syria seem to have it slightly better.

The GGGI is not simply an abstract academic exercise. These numbers matter. The gender divide constitutes one of the most important dimensions of inequality in Pakistan. And given the enviable status of women in certain strata of Pakistani society, imagine what this ranking implies for the vast majority of Pakistani women, who do not inhabit this privileged stratum.
Shockingly, even women in war-devastated Syria seem to have it slightly better

These gender disparities are pronounced in Pakistan’s schools, particularly in rural and remote areas of the country. Pakistani boys receive almost twice as many years of schooling as girls. Gross and net enrollment figures, as well as completion and dropout rates, all show that Pakistani girls fail to receive the educational opportunities available to boys. Literacy rates for both sexes are climbing, but girls continue to lag behind boys by more than 20 percentage points.

Boys are more likely than girls to attend private schools and to receive the superior education offered by the best schools in this category.  Boys also appear to have more Internet access than girls. Unfortunately, girls in government schools, in particular, are limited in their ability to use this increasingly essential tool.

Pedagogical practices perpetuate gendered stereotypes and buttress existing disparities. Societal norms carry over into the classroom, where surveys show that girls are encouraged not to argue or challenge those in authority, but to behave modestly and otherwise be submissive.  Assertiveness is far more likely to be rewarded in boys than in girls. Textbooks and other material from curricula only serve to reinforce the socially gendered division of labor, promote female dependency and portray female identity from a masculine perspective.

Data from the World Economic Forum on gender inequality in Pakistan
Data from the World Economic Forum on gender inequality in Pakistan

By signing onto the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, Pakistan pledged to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005; and in all levels of education by 2015. This goal reflects the near-unanimous agreement within the development community that investing in girls’ education is the most effective way to pursue a broad range of key development objectives.

Women with more schooling marry later and have fewer children. They have lower child and maternal mortality rates and provide better nutrition and healthcare for their families. They generate higher incomes and are less likely to live in poverty. And of course, they are more likely to see that their children also receive schooling, thereby creating a virtuous cycle.

One reason why Pakistani women face a much greater incidence of poverty than their male counterparts is that only 25-30 percent of Pakistani women work outside the home. This in turn reflects the fact that male members of the family receive better education and are more likely to possess the skills needed to compete in the economic arena.

Polling carried out in the spring of 2014 found that Pakistanis broadly support the education of girls. Six of every seven respondents (86 percent) said that education is equally important for boys and girls: a healthy 12 percent increase from 2007. Very few (seven percent) thought that education is more important for boys than girls; five percent claimed to believe that education for girls was more important than for boys.

And yet, even though returns on schooling would seem to encourage a bias toward girls in household decisions on education, Pakistani parents regularly favor sons over daughters: both in deciding whether to enroll their children in school, and in determining how much to spend on education. The reasons for this seemingly illogical action are varied.

First, since married daughters generally live with their husbands or in-laws rather than their parents, the latter cannot expect to reap the benefit of extra income accrued from additional schooling. To the contrary, this income will go to others outside the immediate family.

Second, elderly parents are far more likely to reside with sons than daughters, meaning that investment in sons’ education constitutes a logical investment in their own future security.

Third, many parents see greater opportunity costs in schooling daughters, who otherwise could be helping their mothers with household chores or watching younger siblings.

Finally, in many parts of Pakistan, especially rural or remote areas, powerful social, cultural, and religious norms discourage enrollment of girls despite the high economic returns of education.   Restrictions on the movement of girls beyond the home - believed necessary to protect their safety and honor - work to reduce girls’ enrollment in school. Religious strictures, often quoted out of context, also serve to keep girls at home. If social pressure fails to enforce community norms, threats and occasionally violence are employed.

Pakistan pays a significant cost for its gender disparities, starting with those in the field of education. The World Bank stated it succinctly last year: “Gender equality and women empowerment are central to reducing poverty and achieving sustainable development... [I]nvesting in women and girls can be key drivers of peace-building, social justice, economic growth and reducing inequality.”

Acknowledging this fundamental reality US First Lady Michelle Obama, during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington last October, announced that the United States would invest $70 million to educate 200,000 adolescent girls in Pakistan. Some of this money will fund skills-training programs and college scholarships.

The Sharif government has pledged to double spending for education by 2018. Pakistanis must not let the government ignore this promise. And they should insist that much of this spending go toward educating their girls and young women. That would be one of the smartest investments in their future that Pakistanis could make.

Robert M. Hathaway is a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and, most recently, co-editor of New Security Challenges in Asia