Why do Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas have such a high gender gap in education?

Noreen, a 6-year-old Pashtun girl, holds a book as she stands at the doorway of her family house in the outskirts of Peshawar October 11, 2012.  REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz     (PAKISTAN - Tags: SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E8AB1TKJ01

With the emergence of militants in the 1990s, the social, cultural, and economic structures of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan were badly damaged, most significantly affecting women’s lives. Access to basic services like health and education was reduced, with mobility so minimized that women were not permitted to see a doctor, attend school, or have social interactions. Worse, the militants physically abused residents in FATA. With minimal law and order, the instability and isolation directly affected the overall economic and social status of this region where more than 60 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line.

Data from the Pakistan Education Statistics 2016-17 report shows that the overall reality of education remains bleak, with 22.6 million children out of school—more than half of whom are girls. Indeed, Pakistan holds the second highest gender gap in the world, according to the 2017 Global Gender Gap report. In FATA alone, more than half of the eligible grade 1-12 girls have never stepped foot inside a school and only 1 in 10 girls can read. Moreover, increased militancy, as well as military operations from both United States and Pakistani forces until 2014 respectively, resulted in the displacement of three million FATA residents. Consequently, schools were destroyed, poverty skyrocketed, and without a source of income, thousands of girls either dropped out or never enrolled in school.

Why are girls not in school?

In many parts of Pakistan, outside of FATA, the core reason for girls not attending schools or dropping out is poverty. Even after Article 25-A was added to the constitution in 2010, to make public basic education free, the provinces are still struggling with its implementation and leaving poor families to bear the entire cost of education for their children. Another hindrance, which varies by geography and families’ economic status, is parents’ attitudes towards girls’ education, where the education of boys, who are seen as the eventual breadwinners, is prioritized over girls’ education. Parents become even less interested in educating their daughters when they realize she will be leaving the family after marriage. Finally, many parents question the quality of education, which ultimately influences their decision on whether to send their daughters to school.

The fact that half of girls in FATA have never been to school warrants further exploration. There is not much evidence on the context-specific reasons around out-of-school girls in FATA. While some of the above-mentioned national level reasons may likewise be evident in FATA, given its unique cultural and political context, more research is needed.

With a new normal, FATA is opening doors for educating girls

Now is the time to explore the realities of girls’ education in FATA. Since 2014, following the establishment of peace and government efforts to bring considerable reforms to the FATA region, FATA is now gradually moving towards “normality.” The first substantial step toward this change was a bill that was passed to merge FATA region with the neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Such steps toward mainstreaming the isolated tribal areas of FATA can significantly improve the life of people in this borderland, including their access to basic rights like education.

To improve girls’ education in FATA, understanding the local context with all of its challenges and opportunities is necessary. As an Echidna Global Scholar, my research at the Brookings Institution will strive to provide a deeper understanding of girls’ education issues in FATA’s constantly changing environment. My research will also help in distinguishing myths from realities around the barriers to girls’ education, along with identifying opportunities that already exist or have emerged over time to improve the status of girls’ education in FATA. A nuanced understanding of the educational context in FATA region will prove helpful for policymakers and implementers in adopting approaches that are more context-specific and culturally sensitive. Without well-informed and focused efforts to improve girls’ education, it will not be possible for Pakistan to make full use of FATA’s potential and fully implement its reform agenda, to bring this long-isolated region on par with the rest of the country.