Friday, June 6, 2003
Posted: 0220 GMT (10:20 AM HKT)

Fighting Pakistan's gender gap

(CNN) --Izatullah Baig in the small mountain village of Passu is grateful that his children of both sexes had a good education.

In Pakistan's Northern Areas, the Aga Khan charitable foundation funds schools and academies for both boys and girls, without discrimination.

Here women are lucky. Elsewhere in rural areas like the poor Balochistan province, there is a big gender gap in schools.

Currently only 50 percent of children attend school. Although 48 percent are girls, there are wide variations across the country, especially in rural areas. In Balochistan the proportion of girls attending is only 13 percent.

Nationwide, seven million girls and six million boys of eligible age are not in class.

"The state of education in Pakistan is generally bad and girls are disadvantaged within this society," Raana Syed of UNICEF Pakistan told CNN.

Over the next two years UNICEF, the world children's organization, is spearheading a campaign to help rapidly increase the number of girls in schools.

"Girls' education is the single best investment that any society can make," UNICEF Director Carol Bellamy told a recent Education for All Forum in Islamabad.

"[It is] a key development issue. Every year that a girl is in school is a progressive step towards ending poverty."

Development agencies argue that educated women have fewer children, and those they have are healthier and in turn, better educated

Now UNICEF plans to work with the Pakistani government to mobilize new resources to improve schools and make them more welcoming for girls.

This is likely to be an uphill struggle in areas like Balochistan where very few girls attend school. Men are suspicious when they do.

"There is the issue of security and safety for girls attending school. Parents would rather they stay at home than face the risk of rape or abduction on the way to class," says Syed.

UNICEF has enlisted the help of the boy-scout movement to get girls into class. The project called "Brothers join Meena" now encompasses 30,000 boys.

Recent efforts by the government to increase funding, distribute resources and devolve responsibilities to the local areas are seen as positive steps. It also helps that the current education minister, Zobaida Jalal, is female.

Recently Pakistan developed a national policy for the empowerment of women. Officials hope this will substantially enhance female literacy rates and improve the number who obtain academic and professional qualifications.

The policy gives priority to poor girls and women in rural areas and tries to change existing curricula to make them more gender sensitive. It also encourages more women to teach.

Across South Asia UNICEF's campaign is beginning in 25 countries where girls' education is in a critical state. On the list are six South Asian countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

About 43 million children are out of school in South Asia, mostly girls.

UNICEF wants urgent investment in the region to ensure all children, particularly girls, receive a basic quality education.

"[We are] prepared to do what it takes in any country that has not yet realized the value of educating its girls. These girls simply cannot afford to wait any longer," Bellamy said in a statement.