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PAKISTAN: Moves afoot to boost girls� primary school attendance
Ghotki - Female primary school enrollment in Pakistan, a nation of 158 million, has long been a key development issue. In rural Sindh Province, an impoverished, largely tribal society of long-standing conservative attitudes and traditions, it requires vision.
"We couldn't afford for me to attend so I gave up," the demure 10-year old said, sitting beside her father, Mir Mohammad, in the simple mud-brick home she shares with her five brothers and sisters in Pakistan's rural Ghotki District.
"She spends her day tending to the family's goat," the former police officer, blinded two years ago in a work-related accident, said, staring blankly at his daughter's now expressionless face.
Despite his desire to send her to school, living on a compensation cheque of less than US$25 a month makes it impossible - a fact the 40-year father can see clearly. "I just can't," he said.
Female primary school enrolment in Pakistan, a nation of 158 million, has long been a key development issue. In rural Sindh Province, an impoverished, largely tribal society of long-standing conservative attitudes and traditions, it requires vision.
Most young girls not at school
The situation of girls' education continues to be a major concern in nearly all 23 districts of Sindh, where recent studies and surveys show that about 75 percent of girls aged between five and nine are not in school.
In Sindh's Ghotki District, home to 1.2 million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom live in rural areas, the problem is particularly challenging.
Poverty is rife in the largely semi-arid region, where most people earn just US$2 per day and many girls are kept at home to work the fields or tend livestock.
Compounding the problem further are long-standing cultural and conservative attitudes towards female education that continue to inhibit many girls from attending in the first place.
"Earlier, rural enrolment in Ghotki was one of the lowest in the country," Abdul Aziz Hakro, the district head of elementary education, said in the nearby city of Sukkur, affirming his desire to do more if more resources were made available.
Of the 1,731 boys and girls at functioning government primary schools in the district (another 271 remain closed), most suffer from an acute lack of proper furniture and other amenities.
At the same time, many children in the area continue to attend classes in the open air - often supervised by just one teacher overseeing up to six classes at a time, following a 1995 freeze on new government teaching posts.
According to the Sindh education department, in 2001 female participation in schools in Ghotki stood at just 19 percent, giving this remote district bordering India the distinction of not only having the lowest female participation in the province, but the lowest in the nation.
NGO project in Ghotki
Yet it was precisely those reasons that prompted US-based Land O'Lakes International Development, to choose Ghotki for its school nutrition programme, an ambitious effort aimed at improving primary school enrolment in the area, with a particular focus on girls.
The $5 million project is based on a commodity donation of non-fat milk from the US Department of Agriculture. The four-year programme targets all children under the age of 10 attending government primary schools in the district. It provides a snack comprised of a small carton of milk and four biscuits daily.
And while simplistic in its approach, not only is the programme working, it is growing in popularity at the community level, making a difference to the lives of thousands of girls, many of whose families would never have dreamed of sending them to school four years earlier.
In 2003 before the programme started, there were fewer than 25,000 primary school age girls enrolled in Ghotki, with regular attendance averaging 15,000. Today over 60,000 girls are enrolled, with regular attendance now reaching 85 percent - a clear sign that a single carton of milk distributed daily not only gets girls back into the classroom, it can also change people's longstanding attitudes to female education.
"People in the area are changing their perceptions towards education," Amna Khatoon, headmistress of the Khwand Bukush Mahar government school for girls in Ghotki, an open air facility where six classes are held at once, told IRIN.
"There has been a change in people's mindset. In 2003, we had just 25 girls enrolled in our school. Now we have more than 150," she explained.
Just a stone's throw away, Ali Gohar, a local shopkeeper in the area who sends both his daughters to the same open-air school, couldn't agree more.
"I feel good about sending my children to school. And I want my girls to be educated," the 28-year-old father who left school himself at grade 10, added.
"Before it was awkward to send your daughters to school. That taboo has since been broken," one village elder said, telling IRIN upwards of 90 percent of the girls in his village were now attending classes because of the programme.
Lack of girls' schools
Meanwhile, the residual dividends of the programme, including a marked improvement in the hygiene of the girls attending classes, continue to come in, with more local communities calling on the authorities to open additional schools in their areas.
Of all Ghotki's government primary schools, however, just 291 are reserved for girls, forcing many parents to send their daughters to boys' schools instead to participate in the programme.
According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), one of the key factors for the low enrolment of girls, especially in rural areas of Sindh, is the lack of primary schools for girls.
"Although the number of girls' schools remains almost static, increasingly parents are sending their girls to boys' schools instead," Rashid Iqbal, country manager for Land O'Lakes, said.
But that doesn't seem to bother seven-year-old Naveeda, who dreams of one day becoming a doctor and is one of 70 girls enrolled at the Muhammad Sachal Bhayo boys primary school.
"I like this school - and I like the milk they give me," she said.
"There is only one school in our village. We have no choice," Munawar Pasha, 27, and the father of two girls, explained, noting the number of times they had repeatedly called upon the authorities to open another school.
Such calls, though slowly, are being answered. Between November 2006 and the end of May 2007, 131 previously closed schools have been reopened by the Sindh government after insistence from parents. Amongst the 756 one-teacher schools in Ghotki, there has been a marked improvement in regular attendance by teachers after pressure on local education officials by both Land O'Lakes and the community at large.
According to the government of Sindh, during the first two years of the programme, Ghotki became the number one district in Sindh Province in total primary enrolment growth, as well as the number one in girls' primary enrolment. Girls' primary enrolment grew by 98 percent in Ghotki as opposed to 29 percent province-wide over the same period.
Nationwide replication planned
At the same time, so popular has the programme become, that the Pakistani government now aims to replicate it nationwide, offering close to $12 million in support.
Currently in place in six districts in the country, including Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, the ‘Tawana Pakistan' or Healthy Pakistan programme is already reaching 100,000 school age girls, but now has even bigger plans.
"If this proves successful - and so far it has - I hope to expand this programme to 50 districts," Irfan Ullah Khan, national programme director within the Ministry of Social Welfare and Special Education, said in the capital, Islamabad. "We want to reach one million school age girls nationwide, Khan said, adding, "If the government and donors are behind us, we can do it."
As for the Land O'Lakes programme in Ghotki, slated to end in November 2008, the federal government of Pakistan has already offered to take it over as well, ensuring its sustainability and continued success - another strong sign that a single carton of milk can go a very long way indeed.
Article has been adapted from a news release issued by IRIN.