Pakistan: Girl child faces death, neglect, disadvantage & exploitation from womb to adolescence Print E-mail
 Pakistan ~~March 06, 2008 Sunday Safar 27, 1429

COVER STORY: Where have all the girls gone?

By Hina Shahid

Poverty, tradition and low status of women are the obvious reasons for the grave violation of children’s rights. Add gender discrimination to these and the fate of the girl-child is rather bleak.

Gender inequality is pervasive and it begins before a child is even born. Whether she is born in Afghanistan or Pakistan, the life of a girl, from the womb to childhood and then adolescence, is marred with neglect, disadvantage and exploitation. Families and societies treat girls differently. They face greater discrimination and have access to fewer opportunities, aside from little or sub-standard education, health care and nutrition. Girls are more likely to be killed in the womb, and young mothers are more at risk of developing serious complications, both for the mother and her unborn child.

Poverty, tradition and low status of women are cited as obvious reasons for the grave violation of children’s rights. Early marriages are rampant in rural areas of Pakistan. According to reports, around 58 per cent of females in rural areas are married before they reach the age of 20. In urban areas, the ratio is 27 per cent. Sindh reflects the highest percentage of early marriage in females. In Upper Sindh, Balochis sell their daughters to herders who come from other regions to buy girls and leave some sheep behind in barter. Nomadic Pathans also buy girls and disappear into the hills.

Girls, however, are not the only victims. Balochistan has the highest percentage of child marriage among boys. Boys from rural Pakistan, particularly small towns in southern Punjab, are more likely to be trafficked overseas, girls are trafficked more often within the country and sometimes sold into what amounts to be little more than sexual slavery (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan).

Reasons for early marriage in Sindh are strongly linked to poverty. The price of a bride in rural Sindh generally ranges from Rs30,000 to Rs100,000. Marriage as compensation is a prevalent form of child marriage. Most girls given in 'vanni', 'swara' and 'sang chatti' are young children. “Hundreds of girls are trafficked within the country each year. There are markets in the North West Frontier Province, where these victims are sold like cattle,” writes I.A. Rehman (Pakistan: Trafficking of children on the rise).

A United Nations High Commission for Human Rights report singled out Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Jordon, Morocco, Algeria, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, the Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, Turkey, the Cameroon, Liberia, Madagascar and Senegal as countries with strong preference for boys.

The main hurdles impeding child survival include poor services for mothers and newborn babies. Less than a third of deliveries in Pakistan take place in the presence of a skilled birth attendant, which explains why a woman dies every 20 minutes due to pregnancy and birth-related complications. As many as 320 of every 100,000 live births in Pakistan result in the mother’s death, and many more in the death of newborn babies. The figure rises to above 600 per 100,000 in Balochistan.

The desire for a male child is so strong that it leads to infanticide of female babies and abortions of female foetuses after an ultrasound reveals their sex. Estimates of the number of ‘missing’ girls due to such practices vary, but are as high as 100 million. In South Asia, west Asia and China, the proportion of women to men is as low as 94 women to 100 men. In India a study of 1.1 million households came to the conclusion that: “Based on conservative assumptions, the practice accounts for about 0.5 million female births yearly.” Over the past two decades, this translates into the abortion of 10 million female foetuses.

A report reveals that in Pakistan each year around 1,500 children are being saved by the ‘cradle baby’ programme initiated by Edhi Foundation. Amongst these abandoned children are mostly girls who are being deposited by their parents in the cradle which stands outside Edhi centre entrances. Data from health facility surveys and a health professional survey estimated that 890,000 induced abortions are performed annually in Pakistan.

The annual abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women, aged 15 - 49. The unwanted pregnancy rate is estimated at 77 per 1,000 women. An estimated 197,000 women are treated annually in public hospitals and private teaching hospitals for induced abortion complications (Research report: Estimating the Incidence of Abortion in Pakistan). According to demographers, Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world where population gender statistics are skewed in favour of men.

A local NGO’s research report reveals that around 1,317 women became the victim of violence in the country during the year 2007, which includes 210 victims of honour killing. Around 45 women were gang raped, including minor girls, and 168 women were kidnapped, says the report.

According to the World Bank, only 22 per cent of girls have completed primary level schooling in rural areas of Pakistan as compared to 47 per cent of boys. It is estimated that only 57 per cent of girls and women can read and write in Pakistan. “The extent of illiteracy in a nation is a measure of that nation’s degree of attachment to social justice,” says one Asian commentator, Manzoor Ahmed.

A woman’s place is still seen to be the home, and therefore a girl’s education is seen as less important than her brother’s. There are also relatively fewer women with decision-making positions in government or elsewhere to bring forth an alternative view.

In North West of Pakistan, the condition of young girls is even grimmer. They have been stopped from attending schools on the advice of their elders. This was done soon after a campaign, launched by Maulana Faziullah, a cleric who campaigned against girls’ education through his illegal FM channel from a small village close to Mingora, Swat. Every night after Isha prayers, he delivers special speeches on the topic, terming girls’ education against Islamic commands and a source of vulgarity.

The exact number of girls withdrawn from schools is not known; however, the majority of the parents in the rural areas of Mingora are avowed followers of the maulana and forbid their girls from attending schools.

Literacy, one of the important indicators of human development, has so far been ineffective in achieving its primary goal in the country. A World Food Programme report, titled Food Insecurity in Urban Pakistan, says that out of 111 districts, around 40 districts have a gender literacy gap of 50 per cent and above, with the majority of them in NWFP, Balochistan and FATA, which includes highest literacy gap of 80-84 per cent in four districts, three of which are in Balochistan and one in FATA.

Pakistan has one of the lowest enrollment rates in the world while the dropout rate in primary schools is the highest in the world (50 per cent). The first Education Census 2006, though a flawed exercise, also gives an extremely depressing view of the state of education in Pakistan. In some rural areas of the country such as Kalat in the Province of Balochistan, only nine per cent of women are literate.

Postponing meaningful gender parity by a few more years will be costly, not only for the girls whose lives are affected, but also for the whole Millennium Development enterprise. According to UNICEF’s A Report Card on Gender Parity And Primary Education, “Investing in girls’ education is a strategy that protects the rights of all children to quality education, and is the key to all other development goals, beginning with gender equality and the empowerment of women.”