Pakistani Girls Take a Stand Against Violence, Poverty, and Child Marriage
In Pakistan, an education is the difference between a life of poverty and a life of empowerment. But what is seen as a basic constitutional right isn’t that easy to access–especially if you’re a girl.
From poverty to persecution, there are numerous barriers that stand in the way of a girl’s education. Last October, things took a near fatal turn when 15-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban because she stood up for her right to go to school.
While the shooting was met with outrage across the world, there are over three million* girls in Pakistan who are denied an education and, according to statistics from the Federal Education Ministry of Pakistan, only 26 percent of girls have basic literacy.
It is a startling amount, however in a male dominated society, and Pakistan’s ‘other Malalas’ are fighting for their right to go to school, even if it means overcoming crippling poverty, sexual harassment, violence, or child marriage.
In Pakistan, child marriage can rob girls of their right to go to school, as once wed they are expected to work at home and take care of their family. When the floods devastated Pakistan in 2010, the number of child marriages increased as parents panicked about the well-being of their daughters. In the face of desperation, they promised their girls in marriage with the hope these families would feed and clothe them. Azizah**, 18, was one of them.
“During the flood, my parents arranged a marriage contract to my cousin, but I wanted to continue with my education,” she says. Azizah’s older sister had also been promised to a family member, but she pleaded with them to let her continue with her education.
“My parents insisted that she marry, but she said she wanted to go to school. They finally agreed and the marriage was cancelled,” explains Azizah, whose marriage has now been postponed while she finishes her education.
There are many reasons to call of an engagement–lack of trust, infidelity and incompatibility–but asking to be educated isn’t normally one of them. But for Azizah’s sister, it was this simple request that saved them from the fate of child marriage.
Looking Out for Girls
Plan is working hard to provide an alternative to far-flung government schools through its Non-Formal Education (NFE) projects. Plan’s projects, which sit under the Girl Power Program, are educating over 11,000 girls aged 10-24 across Pakistan–including Azizah.
As part of the project, Plan has set up a series of NFE Centers in various communities that aim to fast-track the girls’ education to Grade 10 so that they will receive a graduation certificate. The girls also receive an education on basic life skills such as health and sanitation and sexual and reproductive rights.
Plan’s centers are free to attend and close to home–they even provide a female caretaker to escort the girls to and from school. Plus, if the girls have been missing class, a teacher from the center will visit the student’s home to find out why.
“Plan’s learning centers are a ray of hope for girls who had dropped out of school because of fear for their well-being, corporal punishment, distantly located schools, and protection issues,” says Plan’s Girl Power Project Manager, Zulqurnain Rafiq.
The change in their behavior is further evident as there are now 746 married girls attending Plan’s NFE centers.
Although education is a constitutional right for girls, what does the ability to go to school mean to the Azizah?
“One girl’s education can impact the next generation of girls,” she says.
And with the support of Malala and Plan, that’s just what she is planning to do!
** Azizah’s name has been changed to protect her identity.