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Exploring Girl Child Education in South Asia

Educating a girl is like a long-term investment; it will not give profits only to one generation but also to the upcoming roots.

South Asia is not only a region with myriad cultures and traditions but also presents several challenges that need our attention. Geographically, this area occupies a mere 10% of the vast Asian continent, yet it is home to 40% of the entire Asian population. Notably, the South Asia region has the highest demographic dividend, as exemplified by countries such as India, where nearly 30% of the population falls within the age group of 18 to 30 years. This demographic dividend possesses a lot of potential but also faces significant challenges, chief among them getting a good job and getting out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

Why, then, should we discuss the concept of the demographic dividend in the context of girl-child education? This demographic dividend possesses the potential to take the initiative and promote the idea of girls' education. Within this age cohort lies the latent energy to address and implement changes.

In the South Asian context, girl education requires special consideration, as it represents a critical concern. The demographic dividend inherent in the region underscores the urgent need to cultivate a population that is better streamlined and well-raised. As mentioned by Mahatma Gandhi, "If you educate a boy, the knowledge will likely remain confined to him alone, but if you educate a girl, it will enlighten not just her but her entire family and society." This statement indicates that a well-educated girl evolves into a well-educated and empowered woman, who, in turn, further contributes to society’s empowerment.

What is the current status of girl-child education in South Asia?

One-third of girls in South Asia remain excluded from educational opportunities, with only a quarter of them gaining access to primary schooling. The Maldives and Sri Lanka have been leading the way in the South Asian region in terms of male and female literacy. On the other hand, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan are still struggling to maintain the desired literacy rate among girls and across their entire populations.

How do South Asians perceive this concept?

As gender inequality is deeply rooted in Indian society, we can observe its consequences for girls' education. For instance, although SAARC has been a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), many loopholes hamper the education of girls and women’s empowerment as a whole. The following are South Asian nations and their progress on girl-child education:

India: India’s literacy rate improved from 64.8% in 2001 to 74.04% in 2011. Although there has been an improvement in the overall literacy rate, it still lags when it comes to girl-child education in India. In 2011, 82.14% of males were educated, compared with 64.46% of females. Many societal factors hold back a girl’s ability to pursue her education, and several government schemes and NGOs have been leading the way in improving these statistics. Some of the prominent steps that have been taken to foster girl-child education include the 86th Constitutional Amendment Act of 2002, which provides compulsory education to children in the age group of 4–16 years and was further extended into the Right to Education in 2009. In addition, the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, UDAAN, and Saakshar Bharat in 2009 are notably important.

Pakistan: Pakistan has been struggling with girls’ education, and this is a major concern for the government. A recent report titled "Shall I feed my daughter or educate her?" shared several heart-wrenching incidents of challenges faced by a girl in Pakistan. According to the findings of the report, 22.5 million children are not going to school, and 87% of girls leave school before finishing the 9th grade. Balochistan suffers the worst consequences: approximately 81% of girls do not finish primary school, and 75% have not even been to school. Other provinces, such as Sindh and Punjab, are doing much better in this queue. In efforts to improve education, setting up all-female madrassas has been considered to promote women’s involvement in education.

Bangladesh: Since the 1990s, there has been significant progress in school enrollment in Bangladesh. In 2003, the enrollment rate reached 84% and has continued to improve. The country is prevailing ahead to create a productive atmosphere for the girls in the country. Even so, 1.5 million girls in the country have dropped out of school. UNICEF presents some statistics about the loopholes in Bangladesh’s policy toward girl-child education. For instance, 10% of the girls never enroll in school, 34% become victims of dropping out of school, and only 28% can complete their education but still lack the skills for employment. Several steps have been taken by the government of Bangladesh, including the opening of madrasa schools. Moreover, the Transforming Secondary Education for Results (TSER) program is funded by the World Bank and plays an integral role in spreading quality education among RLs.

Bhutan: Bhutan has experienced some positive implications of educating girls, one of which is the decline in poverty. As per the data, we can observe that the poverty rate has slowed down from 23% in 2007 to 12% in 2012. There has been a large proportion of girls enrolled in schools compared with boys, with the enrollment rate increasing with time. However, several challenges need to be addressed. Being geographically inaccessible, Bhutan faces the challenge of daily attendance by children in schools, where primary enrollment is adequate but secondary education is struggling. Poverty and child labor have affected the aspirations of children, especially girls. Nonetheless, some measures, such as free primary education for children, provide hope to parents who want to educate their children while striving in poverty.

Nepal: As per statistics, we can observe that 66% of males can read and write, compared to 43% of females. This indicates the need to create a policy framework to support female literacy and empowerment. Several factors hamper girls’ education, one of them being poverty. As per statistics, 25% of households make only $1.25 per day. Another challenge that hampers girls’ ability to attend school is child labor, with 30% of the girls in Nepal trapped in child labor. With regard to the government’s approach to fostering girl-child education, we can observe efforts such as early childhood development strategies, decentralization, compulsory education, incentives, and sensitization.

Sri Lanka: This small island country in South Asia has been improving its educational status for girls for the last few decades. Facts and figures show that both girls and boys have equal enrollment in schools and educational institutions. In addition, the National Assessment of Learning Objectives states that girls score higher than boys. Not only that, it has become the first and only country to fulfill the United Nations Millennium Development Goal for gender equality at all levels of education. Some milestone steps undertaken to achieve this tremendous growth are as follows: In 1945, the idea of free primary, secondary, and higher education became available to all students regardless of gender, and the widespread role of NGOs acted as a catalyst in this process. Nevertheless, the country struggles with skill development and finding employment opportunities for its female counterparts. The government is working to achieve the same.

Way ahead

Educating girls is more than an investment. An educated girl will evolve into an empowered woman. This will not only foster a healthy life and economy but also uplift the status of approximately 50% of the country’s population. Education in South Asia faces many challenges, such as poverty, exploitation, the absence of resources, and oppression by culture and religion. However, there is scope and hope to defend the girls from all these ill elements of South Asian society. All we need is to be vigilant, accept changes, and have an evolving mindset to foster the goal and idea of educating girls about resource safety.

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