Pakistan has a considerable number of development challenges, and girls are the most extremely affected. Poverty is deeply rooted, and over 60 million people live in poverty. 22.6 million children do not go to school, out of which 13 million are girls. Along with that, two-thirds of the women of the country are unable to read and write. One of the focus areas of the UK Government is girls’ Education for UK ODA spending. Since 2019, Education (especially girls’ education) has been the most extensive UK bilateral aid spending area in Pakistan.   

The International Development Committee (IDC) of the UK parliament carried out its enquiry of UK Aid to Pakistan, focusing on Education, mainly the girl’s education in Pakistan, on 18th May 2021. The purpose of the inquiry was to get insight into whether UK aid improves access to Education for girls and marginalized communities. Also, it aimed to look at whether the UK aid education projects fulfil the distinct needs of communities, whether they align with the objectives and policy of the Government of Pakistan and the education projects of other international donors working in the country.

Pauline Latham chaired the session. The witnesses of the inquiry session included Fajer Rabia Pasha (Executive Director – Pakistan Alliance of Girls Education), Amir Ramzan (Country Director – British Council) and Adnan Junaid (Country Director – International Rescue Committee Pakistan).  

The members of the inquiry heard from the witnesses who are development stakeholders. The stakeholders/witnesses discussed the challenges, opportunities, aid cuts, and way forward for the UK aid education projects.

A member of the inquiry directed a question towards PAGE’s Executive Director, Fajer Rabia Pasha, about the UK funded programs and their impact on more enrollments in school. In response to that, Ms Pasha stated that money trickles down and delivering partners impacts girls’ education. However, it is to be kept in view that the scale of the problem in Pakistan is too massive.

While addressing the issue of out-of-school children, another problem that is faced is the rising population. Through PAGE’s STAR school network all over Pakistan, it has been found out that a large number of out-of-school children keeps adding to the existing number due to the rise in population. With COVID, the dropout rate of children has severely increased. Through the data collection of PAGE, it has been observed that a large number of girls have dropped out and have been forced into early marriages.

Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of aid in the education sector, which is tremendous. Agreeing with Adnan, she added that most of the work done is project-based. Once the project is completed, people wrap up and leave, and it becomes difficult for new organizations to go in and work because the people of the community become upset. Then, new organizations must go through community mobilization and building the trust level.

Through her experience of running the STAR schools’ network, Ms Pasha suggests a way forward for education projects. Long-term planning is needed because Education and Health are long-term issues. A holistic approach to Education is needed in Pakistan. Education should not be seen as just Education, but it should be seen as an “Actor of Change” in Pakistan. Education not only helps with a better future but also helps with issues of safeguarding. To see girls as leaders of tomorrow, UK Aid should have an integrated approach and look at other areas where the girls need support. Particularly, secondary Education of girls needs funding and support.

On the following question about UK funded education projects joined up approach with other donors, through her experience of heading PAGE, Ms Pasha states that it is not much of a joined-up approach. The donors do sit together, the forums exist, but everyone has their priorities regarding funding disbursement and programs.

PAGE’s point of view is that an inclusive and holistic approach needs to be implemented. It is best if all the donors’ pool in money (based on their priorities) to work on a specific village and its different problems. It would make a larger and long-term impact if the donors and the government of more considerable could also have a clear strategy for girls’ education. It would be beneficial.

PAGE firmly believes that when it comes to girls’ education, it is not just about providing them supplies but also about things associated with it, such as safeguarding, capacity building, self-belief, and confidence.

Another enquiry member posed a question about UK Aid projects fitting with the Pakistan government education programs. PAGE’s Executive Director, Ms Pasha, answered by saying that they fit perfectly well and the government of Pakistan has clear priorities. There is not much difference.

Next, a question was asked on the topic “is the physical infrastructure of schools a barrier to improve Education in Pakistan? If yes, then what steps should the UK take to target its funding for better building of schools.” To this, PAGE’s representative responded that there two things one is a problem of missing facilities, and then there is a problem of complete absence of schools. For girls, toilets are essential, at least running water. 85% of the girls drop out after completing their Primary Education mainly due to the lack of toilets. Investors should be cautious about where they are investing in the education sector. The scale of the problem is too massive. Hence, instead of building buildings, the money could be invested in teachers, technology and creating access to Education, especially for girls at the secondary level. We should invest in improving the existing facilities to provide the children with a happy environment.

In response to the question of is the UK getting more girls to school, Ms Pasha said, “We are not partners, with UK Aid ourselves, so the impact in terms of numbers cannot be known. However, projects run by other organizations have always had the priority to bring more girls to schools”.

She later added that with the joined-up approach, it had not been seen on the ground. We may partner up with an organization or two or with the government of Pakistan to pool in money, but on the ground, it is not really seen. We need to rethink our approach around partnerships and think about how UK Aid can work with grassroots organizations to see the impact on the ground. Local actors and local organizations are always best suited to bring in communities because they already have established trust levels. The current government is open to public and private partnerships, and PAGE has programs running with the Federal Directorate of Education, and PAGE has not seen this approach in the previous governments.

Talking about an inclusive approach to Education in Pakistan, Ms Pasha shared PAGE’s point of view. Things have changed quite a bit in Pakistan. It may exist in small areas, but it is not exactly a huge issue in Pakistan. Many works have been done, and children from all backgrounds are welcome to government schools, seen firsthand in Punjab, KP and Baluchistan. There is space for improvement.

There is little work done for the provision of Education to children with disability. It is a stigma in society. The parents do not tend to send children with disability to school. Work needs to be done around this area in terms of awareness-raising. The same goes for transgender. Transgenders are not really accepted in society. They are not accepted. People are much more educated when it comes to religious minorities.

To improve access to Education in Pakistan and the effectiveness of interventions made by UK aid education projects, Ms Pasha stated that Education is one of the leading sectors affected due to COVID. The children were not able to attend school. Television was a great intervention, and many organizations invested in radio programs in rural areas. Many girls suffered, so many people lost work, and child labour increased to generate income. We need to invest in technology, but the huge issue is that we do not have internet issues everywhere. A significant cultural issue is that girls are not allowed to access the internet. Along with that, mental health challenges have not been highlighted at all. 

The chair of the inquiry, Ms Pauline, asked what the ages of 6-11 million girls would be out of school due to aid cuts. To this Ms Pasha, expressed the PAGE’s point of view, saying that these numbers would include girls of all ages. During COVID, many families migrated from one place to another. Hence, the girls dropped out, and it is a big challenge. One out ten girls complete secondary Education in Pakistan, and it is a shocking figure. Due to poverty, the parents want to get their daughters married as early as possible.

Mr Amir Ramzan and Mr Adnan Junaid also expressed their experiences, point of views and understanding of the progress, challenges, and opportunities of the UK aid education projects. Both agreed that the strategy of UK aid education projects is very much apparent. It is coherent and is aligned with the Government of Pakistan. They both agreed that UK Aid is successful in reaching parts of Pakistan that are the most in need and plays a vital role in making Education accessible to girls in Pakistan.