Girls are fundamentally entitled to seek education; this right is enshrined in the human rights charter under international law (United Nations). The cause has been espoused by innumerable individuals and organizations across Pakistan, and it is heartening to note that their efforts have borne fruit as female education continues to increase in expansiveness. Yet, before we default to self-congratulation, we must be cognizant of the stark reality, that in spite of indefatigable activism, Pakistan still has immense ground to cover before it achieves parity with the rest of the world. At the 2015 Oslo Summit on Education and Development, Pakistan was named "among the world's worst-performing countries in education" (Martinez, 2018). A deeply alarming statistic cited by UNICEF Pakistan confirms that an estimate of 22.8 million children within the age bracket of 5-16 are out-of-school (2019). It comes as no shock that it is the young female population who is the most affected with only thirteen percent of girls continuing their education beyond the ninth grade (Martinez, 2018). A profoundly concerning fifty percent of women in Pakistan have never been to school (Martinez, 2018). Low rates of educational attainment such as these leave women ill-equipped to deal with the world and can thereby signify disaster for future generations.
There are many obstacles in the path of Pakistan-wide female education that are yet to be cleared. A hurdle that most neglect to mention is that of poor sanitation facilities for girls in educational institutions. The lack of proper sanitation facilities at educational institutions may spell a dire forecast for female education in Pakistan. The 2015 Annual Status of Education Report data shows that 40% of government primary schools do not have drinking water, 48% do not have usable toilets, and 37% do not have boundary walls (ASER Centre, 2015). These problems result in low levels of learning and consequently result in low enrollment rates and high dropout rates of girls in particular.
Around one-third of schools in Pakistan are deprived of basic water and sanitation facilities. In the province of Sindh alone, approximately 100,000 students leave school every year in the first month alone due to inadequate sanitation, as disclosed by the provincial education department's secretary, Dr. Iqbal Hussain Durrani (Sahoutara, 2017). Almost 49% of schools in Sindh do not have toilets (Haider, 2018). Coupled with the absence of clean, potable water and soap, students have no choice but to defecate in the public. Traditional Pakistani society frowns upon women accessing public spaces so girls cannot partake in this paltry alternative; they are forced to miss school altogether. In the absence of proper sanitizers and disinfectants, the germ-infested skins of students may come into contact with food, which will result in stomach aches. Inevitably, this forces them to miss out on school. Additionally, the lack of clean drinking water in schools may lead to students feeling dehydrated, which interferes with their ability to concentrate on lessons (Haider, 2018).
It would not be an overstatement to say that when poverty mingles with the restrictive patriarchal norms of Pakistani society, the young girls are the ones who are made to face the brunt of this unholy alliance. Indeed, girls are forced to drop out of school, as the deplorable conditions of sanitation impede them majorly in their quest for uninterrupted schooling. Shad Begum, Executive Director of the Association for Behavior and Knowledge Transformation (ABKT), Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and recipient of the 2012 International Women of Courage Award notes that this issue may have been willfully ignored because of strict social and cultural taboos. Fazal Noor, an International Development Expert, believes that while sanitation is an important issue in itself, the biggest encumbrance that fetters girls from going to school is their parents' unwillingness. Understandably, sanitation is not the primary issue mentioned in discussions related to female education. Yet it is one that has strong implications for the viability of female education (AHRC, 2012).
Finally, I must address what is possibly the most significant way in which the lack of sanitation hinders girls in their pursuit of education. From the onset of puberty, girls (or individuals assigned female at birth) have to deal with menstruation. The lack of female hygiene products coupled with the absence of latrines in schools makes an already physically painful condition almost intolerable. Girls attending schools in rural areas often have to traverse long distances, and the fatigue brought about by the menstrual periods may compel them to miss school. Because of social and religious norms, it is considered unseemly to talk about menstruation, and as a result, girls shy away from discussing their menstruation-related problems even with their female relatives or close friends. The stigma surrounding the mere mention of menstruation has made change unlikely. In addition, a lack of awareness in regards to proper menstrual hygiene is all-pervasive in Pakistan's rural societies.
A number of solutions have been proposed so as to improve the sanitary conditions in Pakistani schools. Government bodies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should invest in WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) facilities in schools. Sindh School Education and Literacy Department released their 2017-2022 plan to use the WASH techniques to provide better conditions for students. However, the costs that the department estimated for latrine installation for all schools was PKR 16,943,803,525 and for installation of drinking, water facilities were PKR 7,024,025,000 (School Education and Literacy Department, 2017). Considering the amount of funding required, it begs the need for an increase in the education budget of Sindh, and perhaps all other provinces. Simply recognizing the initiatives needed for better quality life for students is not enough, the government must think about ways which would provide all the necessary resources for project implementation.
NGOs such as Water Aid are also working to raise awareness about hygiene by organizing door-to-door campaigns, lectures, and talks. Many NGOs have also collaborated with a multitude of partners so as to install and rehabilitate WASH facilities and implement sustainable models of female menstrual hygiene in schools, aiding the Sindh Government’s goal to provide WASH facilities in all school levels by 2022 (Haider, 2018).
These government and organization initiatives are a step in the right direction, however, a change of mindsets is needed so as to openly discuss and thereby tackle the problems faced by girls when they set out to seek knowledge. The de-stigmatization of pertinent issues such as these may stir discussion and therefore action. Educating girls is necessary and both society and governments should put in their best efforts to help achieve this goal.
AHRC. (2012, July 6). Lack of sanitation facilities in schools-an obstacle in girls' education. Retrieved from ReliefWeb: https://reliefweb.int/report/pakistan/lack-sanitation-facilities-schools-obstacle-girls-education
ASER Centre. (2015). ANNUAL STATUS OF EDUCATION REPORT (ASER). Retrieved November 21, 2020, from http://www.asercentre.org/p/51.html?p=61
Haider, S. (2018). Bringing back hope through WASH in schools. Water Aid.
Martinez, E. (2018, November 12). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/11/12/shall-i-feed-my-daughter-or-educate-her/barriers-girls-education-pakistan
Poor sanitation is stunting children in Pakistan. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2018/11/13/poor-sanitation-is-stunting-children-in-pakistan-wb-report/amp/
Sahoutara, N. (2017, October 24). Express Tribune. Retrieved from https://tribune.com.pk/story/1539455/1-education-sindh-suffers-due-poor-sanitation?amp=1
School Education and Literacy Department. (2017). Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) in Public Sector Schools Strategic Plan for Sindh (pp. 38-39, Publication). Karachi, Sindh: Government of Sindh.
United Nations. Sustainable Development Goals 4 Retrieved from UNDP: http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-4-quality-education.html