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Women battle to gain voice through literacy drive in Pakistan

Published: Dec 27, 2007 at 06:56
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Changing local attitudes regarding the education of girls in rural Pakistan is difficult, say activists. Photo: Zofeen Ebrahim/IRIN
With Pakistan's female adult literacy rate as low as 36 percent, according to the UN, Shahida, married with a one year-old daughter, believes it is up to the women in her community to bring about change, if not for themselves, then for their daughters.

"Otherwise their lives will be just like ours," Shahida, 20, said.

She is among two dozen women huddled together on the floor of the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) literacy centre in Jiya Bagha, a farming village, outside Lahore, the provincial capital of Pakistan's populous Punjab Province, to learn the nuances of teaching adults how to read and write.

These women - some as old as 55-year-old Zaibunnisa, who has three children in their early twenties, and others like unmarried Bushra or Shamim - come each day to learn how to teach other adult women in their community how to read and write.

The NCHD was formed in 2002 by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to support government departments in areas of education, literacy and the provision of basic healthcare services.

With a corporate-like, public-private partnership-approach, the commission was formed to find innovative solutions to meeting the ambitious targets of the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) by 2015.

Overall there are 55 million illiterates in Pakistan and with an additional three million being added to this pool annually, achieving the MDGs will prove a major challenge.

NCHD aims to accelerate the literacy rate by 3.3 percent per year to achieve Goal 4 - from the current 53 percent (2006) to 86 percent by the year (2015).

Apart from training literate females to impart reading and writing skills to others, the commission has also established over 41,000 literacy centres nationwide from which over 100,000 women have so far benefited.

"The emphasis is on cultural relevance and functionality. They should be able to read the newspaper in the local language, write a simple letter and be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide up to three figures," said the NCHD's Aamir Bilal.

Uphill struggle

Bushra, who commutes to Lahore every day to study in an engineering college, knows all too well the travails of learning. "I literally had to fight my way through education," she said. There is only one girls' school in her community and that goes up to grade10.

"Transport is another problem - and why many of my friends had to discontinue education. Many families did not allow this long commute by public transport."

Meanwhile, Kausar Naseem, Bushra's friend, has opted for distance-learning to complete her Master's degree through Allam Iqbal Open University, after she completed her bachelor's as a private student. "I'd have liked to go to college, experience the life there, but I have to be content with this," Naseem, 23, said.

Yet while the little town of Jiya Bagha may be just a stone's throw from Lahore - known for its fine educational institutions, according to Sheeba - "the love for seeking education has not trickled down to our town," she added.

She continues: "The mind-set is very narrow. Our men, who have forever been agriculturalists and owners, think that because there is no reason for women to work outside the homes, there is no need for them to study."

And according to experts, her revelation is not new. In many traditional societies, family and community attitudes towards female literacy remain hostile.

"It seems we're left stranded in some warped time capsule; I, for one, would definitely want my children to come out of it and breathe the fresh air," said Shahida.


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