Why Women’s Day belongs to the girl child

It was in 1787 that British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft published a strong case for women’s education in her book: Thoughts On The Education of Daughters. Two and a quarter centuries later in Pakistan, a girl child is shot in the head for advocating for the same thing in Swat Pakistan. Tragically, she is not only forced to live outside the country in fear for her security but the large majority of Pakistanis consider Malala Yousafzai to be an agent of the west. The two fundamental issues here: we are really behind schedule in catching up with the rest on the world on our rights for girls and, two, the suspicion of all things western calls for a reform in our self-destructive thinking. Any notion that omits modernity because of the source being foreign indicates that we are not working on the premise of national interest but on the interests of priests and witch doctors. The intellectual compass needs to be corrected.

This International Women’s Day on March 8, Pakistan over there were moots and talks by women’s rights activists but we need more than just that to carry out the revolt against the woman-hating notions our orthodoxy has. Around the world, 62 million girls are not in school. In Pakistan, educational experts conclude that only 12 percent girls and women can read and write. Even by the most conservative estimate, 3.2 million primary school age girls are out of school in Pakistan. This makes us a country with the third highest number of out-of-school children in the world.

There are no women’s rights without there being a serious introspection into the doors we close on the girl child of Pakistan. We have a tendency to look too far back into the past when we honour the day celebrating women but in Pakistan some of the most worthy heroes are young women themselves working towards a more prosperous Pakistan for whom education is the forte. Here are three women that are reason enough not to give up just yet.

Mashall Chaudhri is a brilliant young woman from Karachi who studied Foreign Service from Georgetown University. For years now her passion has been to start and direct the Reading Room Project (RRP). Unwilling to do nothing in the face of the disastrous quality of education, a severe lack of qualified teachers and a crippling absence of adequate content, Mashall began to use the internet and blended learning to teach Pakistani low-income students how to self-learn. RRP just finished its one-year pilot in February 2014 where 30 students completed a 12-month intensive programme in digital literacy, mathematics and english. Some of the most inspiring pictures come out of this project with young girls, who probably would not otherwise be allowed to hold a pen, holding a computer mouse, intently staring at the computer screen, a window into the world of knowledge.

Humaira Bachal was born in the marginalised Moach Goth squatters’ settlement, in the periphery of Karachi. Despite her father’s opposition and the wrath of her community leaders, she had championed the rights of educating the girl child since she was 12. Since then, what was started as tent classes in her neighbourhood has now become the Dream Model Street School where 1,200 children are enrolled. Humaira has won accolades from her many fans but her greatest fan remains Madonna, who helped give Humaira’s goals the international attention they needed. Shermeen Obaid Chinoy of Oscar fame too has supported Humaira’s cause and has helped her connect to much-needed funding for the school. For causes like this, that have grassroots origins and unquestionable credibility, the more support it gets the larger the faction that goes to the real beneficiaries.

Ammara Farooq Malik has been working for years on restricting the employment of children, particularly young girls, as domestic workers. Five years ago she adopted a school predominantly for child domestic workers and children of domestic workers. The SEPLAA Foundation also empowers young girls and women through training to create social enterprises with the aim to build peace. In South Punjab, the SEPLAA team has reached across to over 800 young girls through seminars and workshops. Ammara has also provided policy recommendations to UNICEF and the Punjab government to bring the Employment of Children’s Act in conformity with the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and ratified International Labour Organisation’s (ILO’s) conventions. To date, Ammara has helped over 25,000 children, youth and women in empowerment, education, peacebuilding, environment awareness, legal awareness and health advocacy.

These three young women illustrate that, perhaps, they alone cannot push back the avalanche of out-of-school girls but that each woman can take it upon herself to do her part in her own unique capacity. “The best judge,” said Barak Obama, “of whether a country is going to develop or not depends on how it treats its women.” We cannot disagree with that. Nor can we disagree with Mohammad Ali Jinnah saying that women are perhaps a world’s greatest power: “There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women.”

Pakistan must right this wrong with the urgency it deserves. With Mashall, Humaira and Ammara leading the way, this is a possibility.

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