Malala Is Back: The Challenges Ahead for Girls' Education in Pakistan

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The teenage activist, who survived a Taliban assassination attempt, is now out of the hospital -- and ready to continue the work that nearly got her killed.

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Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai smiles with nurses as she is discharged from The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham on January 4, 2013. (Reuters)

Yesterday, people around the world watched in admiration and awe a clip from an interview with Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for girls' education. "I want every girl, every child to be educated," she said bravely in comments given before she had surgery at a hospital in England-apparently, she is now recovering well-and discussed the new Malala Fund to do just that. The fund's inaugural grant will help girls from the Swat Valley, where Malala is from, receive an education instead of entering the workforce prematurely.

Girls' education in Pakistan, however, needs more than Malala's determination and courage. While the Taliban have certainly terrorized parts of the country, they are not to blame for the sorry state of girls' education in Pakistan. Over the years, Pakistan's various governments have made halfhearted efforts to address the shameful gender gap, but the proof of their failure is in the numbers:

The statistics are appalling. In 1981, 45 percent of male youth (15 to 24) in Pakistan were literate, versus only 24 percent of female youth--a literacy gap of 21 points. Since that time, while overall literacy rates have improved, Pakistan's gender gap has barely budged. In 2009, 79 percent of male youth were literate, but only 61 percent of female youth--a literacy gap of 18 points.

Another way to understand Pakistan's slow progress on female education is by comparing it with Bangladesh. Formerly East Pakistan, Bangladesh became independent in 1971. Ten years later, Pakistan and Bangladesh were performing comparably on literacy. But Bangladesh has since raced ahead in female education and now literacy rates there are higher for female than for male youth.

Between 2000 and 2005, Bangladesh managed to double female primary school enrollment to 90 percent. In Pakistan, female primary school net enrollment in 2010 was only 60 percent. Pakistan's educational system (and attitudes toward women more generally) are holding the country back. In 2010, only 22 percent of Pakistani women participated in the workforce, as opposed to 57 percent in Bangladesh. While it is now commonly acknowledged that a literate and educated female population can powerfully contribute to economic development--not to mention improve life outcomes for their families--Pakistan is missing the boat.

The world rightly applauds the courage and determination of young Malala Yousafzai, but getting girls in school needs to be a national obsession for Pakistan if it hopes to tackle poverty and extremism.



This post appears courtesy of CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Isobel Coleman is the Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at Council on Foreign Relations. She writes at "Democracy in Development."

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