Pakistan to tackle female literacy through cellphones and text messaging

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In this file photo a teacher displays a flash card to students during a class in Shadabad Girls Elementary School in Pir Mashaikh village in Johi, some 325 km (202 miles) from Karachi February 12, 2014. (REUTERS)
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In this January 12, 2015 file photo, girls carry their school bags as they walk along a road while heading to their school in Peshawar. Pakistan says it will soon launch a new program that relies on technology, specifically on mobile phones and SMS texts, to increase female literacy in a country where one in three girls miss out on primary school. (Reuters)
Updated 17 May 2019
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Pakistan to tackle female literacy through cellphones and text messaging

  • Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood says government working on new project to use technology to educate girls
  • Nearly 22.5 million of Pakistan’s estimated 50 million children are out of school, most of them girls

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani education minister Shafqat Mahmood said on Wednesday Pakistan would soon launch a new program that relied on technology, specifically on mobile phones and SMS texts, to increase female literacy in a country where one in three girls miss out on primary school.
Nearly 22.5 million of Pakistan’s estimated 50 million children are out of school, most of them girls, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report last year, highlighting the problems of poverty, lack of federal investment and a shortage of government schools. At around the age of 14, only 13 percent girls are still in education, HRW said, attributing this mainly to a shortage in secondary schools for girls, as well sexual harassment, early marriage, gender discrimination and abusive teachers.
“Now we are looking at maybe the possibility of using technology,” Mahmood told Arab News in response to a question about the government’s plans to increase female literacy.
In figures released in July 2018, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority said Pakistan had 151 million cellphone users, a demographic Mahmood wants to capitalize on to improve literacy rates.
He said his ministry was experimenting with various ideas and on Wednesday, he would be briefed about a project designed by telecommunications giant Mobilink Jazz to address the problem of illiteracy through mobile devices and text messaging.

In this image from May 6, 2019, Pakistan's education minister, Shafqat Mahmood, can be seen addresssing a news conference in Islamabad. (PID)

“I am a little excited about this, I am trying to contain my excitement,” the minister said, speaking about the project which he said is yet to be named. “Because if we are able to use technology we will overcome many hurdles.”
He explained that the project being prepared by the government would take away the need for at least 2.1 million teachers and 700,000 literacy centers. Also, he said, while people, especially girls, couldn’t be forced to physically attend literacy centers and schools, even people who weren’t well-educated or from lower middle class backgrounds knew how to use mobile phones now.
Another problem, Mahmood said, was that many people in a conservative country like Pakistan did not want to send their daughters to school, especially if there were no schools near the home, and so getting an education using cell phones could be an answer to a cultural problem also.
The education minister said in rural areas, there were often no higher secondary schools near people’s homes “and therefore the girls have to travel long distances and the parents are not ready to do that.”
“If we can use technology,” the education minister said, “if people are sitting at home and getting some kind of methodology through which literacy is happening on their mobile devices, so you [government] distributes mobile devices and use them to create literacy.
“That’s a very interesting area [and] sort of where I am looking into,” the minister said. “It’s early days.”
Worldwide, more than 130 million girls are out of school, costing the global economy as much as $30 trillion, according to the World Bank.
Pakistani Taliban and allied Islamist militants, who regard girls education as anti-Islam, have been attacking thousands of schools for young women in northwestern and northern parts of Pakistan.
In 2012, the Pakistani Taliban shot and critically wounded Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai, known for her girls’ education advocacy in northern Swat valley.
Pakistan spent less than 2.8 percent of its GDP on education in 2017 — falling far short of the United Nations’ recommended 4 to 6 percent.
Before his election as prime minister in August, Imran Khan promised to “prioritize establishment and upgradation of girls’ schools and provide stipends to girls and women for continuing their education” in his party’s manifesto. Little has been done so far though the education minister said the government was planning many new initiatives.
Maha Arshad, an impact investment practitioner who has previously worked with Teach For Pakistan, outlined some of the causes of low female literacy rates in Pakistan. In many cases, she said, girls were helping their mothers take care of the rest of the children at home and families with limited resources preferred to send their boys to school over girls.
But Nadia Naviwala, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said it was a “huge myth” that Pakistani parents did not want to send their daughters to school.
“It is more of a supply problem,” she said. “The government schools are primarily staffed by men, the public sector teachers are mainly men which is why most parents do not want to send their girls to study at those schools.”
Education minister Mahmood agreed that the problem was one of supply which required the government “to build more schools, but also to re-think the schools we already have.”
“The reality is a child in school who has spent three years in a school here cannot read a sentence and that’s a majority of third graders,” Naviwala said. “It makes you think what is wrong with these schools? They’re not schools. Pakistan does not provide strong education to its children. There is not a dramatic difference between a child who attends school and one who doesn’t, not as dramatic as you would expect it to be.”


In Peshawar prison, women inmates share food and prayers in Ramadan

Updated 27 May 2019
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In Peshawar prison, women inmates share food and prayers in Ramadan

PESHAWAR: Located next to iconic landmarks like the Provincial Assembly and the High Court, the central prison in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar is a handsome old building bursting at the seams with over 1,800 prisoners. 38 of them are women.

The existing building was established in 1854 with an occupancy limit of 425 prisoners, but with the influx of thousands of inmates, a new block is now under construction and slated for completion by the end of the year. 

Inside the prison kitchens, convicted prisoners make round traditional bread and prepare Iftar meals for other inmates. May 25, 2019. (AN photo by Saba Rehman)

The prison department provides basic facilities and food to inmates still under trial and to those convicted in the male, female and juvenile sections. During the month of Ramadan, these facilities extend to include special meals at Iftar, like sweet rice, chicken and potatoes served with a side of milky hot tea. 

A female inmate cooks chicken gravy for herself and other prisoners in the prison barracks before Iftar. May 25, 2019. (AN photo by Saba Rehman)

“We get good food in this month (of Ramadan) and are free to offer our prayers and recite the Holy Quran at any time,” said Shahida, an inmate who has been in the prison for five years but was convicted for murder late last year. 

Acting superintendent of the prison releases prisoners after the court orders arrive. The inmates receive the good news right before Iftar time in Ramadan. May 25, 2019. (AN photo by Saba Rehman)

The large hall of the women’s section has a scattering of beds, but most inmates sleep, eat and pray on quilts spread out on the floor. 

A police officer stands guard outside the entrance to the women’s section in Peshawar’s central jail. May 25, 2019. (AN photo by Saba Rehman)

"Some of the women get sick often,” said Iffat Shaheen, assistant superintendent of the women’s prison section. “Right now we have two pregnancy cases and one case of HIV AIDS, so we try to give them good meals. A few prisoners have small children inside prison with them and they get milk as well.” 

A female inmate gives English lessons to some of the children at the Peshawar central prison. May 25, 2019. (AN photo by Saba Rehman)

Another female inmate convicted for possession of drugs has been in prison for seven months. She declined to be identified but said they had a lot of free time in Ramadan that could be put to good use. 

Women in Peshawar’s central prison spend their days reading the Quran and reciting prayer beads during the month of Ramadan. May 25, 2019. (AN photo by Saba Rehman)

“This is a helpful time for us to learn skills like handicrafts and sewing,” she said. “When we leave prison, perhaps these things will pave the way for a good, halal living.” 

A woman inmate at Peshawar’s central jail has decorated her hands with henna in anticipation of the holy festival of Eid, which will mark the end of Ramadan. May 25, 2019. (AN photo by Saba Rehman)
Rooh Afza, a popular indigenous drink made from herbs and flowers, is served around Peshawar’s central prison by the bucketfuls before Iftar. May 25, 2019. (AN photo by Saba Rehman)
Weekly menu written out for prisoners at Peshawar’s central jail in Urdu. May 25, 2019. (AN photo by Saba Rehman)