The Asian Today spoke to writer and activist Bina Shah
The issue of girls’ education is a meticulously sensitive one. With traditional speculation combined with misguided misconceptions, statistics for girls’ education have started to decline in the Indian subcontinent. Statistically speaking, there are 32 million fewer girls than boys in primary school with the UN estimating that 10% fewer girls under the age of 17 would become pregnant in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they had a primary education; so to deal with the situation a global campaign for girls’ education was launched. The campaign; powered by girls, women, boys and men; is based on a documentary and showcases the struggles and efforts of different girls from different countries and their desire to be educated.
The documentary was recently launched in Pakistan. The Asian Today spoke to writer and activist, Bina Shah about how crucial the campaign is to a country with low educational statistics.
1. Tell me about yourself.
I am a writer. I live in Karachi. I am a novelist and I am a columnist for newspapers here and abroad. I currently write for the International New York Times in which I write a column every month on Pakistan. I have also written for the Independent and The Guardian.
2. What is Girls Rising?
It is a campaign and documentary about different girls. There are girls from 9 countries which include Somalia, Sudan, Haiti and India. These girls tell their stories but well-known writers have written their stories from each girl’s country. They are then narrated by A-list celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Liam Neeson and Salma Hayek to just name a few. You get the sense of a living breathing girl and her true story. It is then you understand that these are all just facets of the same problem that are played out in so many different ways.
3. Why have you given your support to it?
I have a Masters in Education but I have never utilised it. I have always supported education initiatives in an indirect way and then over the last year and a half District UK (a UK organisation funding education in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) started a project in Sindh called the Education Fund for Sindh. I serve on their technical committee on a voluntarily basis. The aim of the project is that we are getting children that have never been to school in their entire life and putting them in to schools. We are matching them up with private schools; this is only possible through donations, grants, and public-private partnerships between the government and private sectors. At the same time, I am also supporting a system of schools for the deaf. It is basically getting disadvantaged students who cannot get in to mainstream education. Then the Malala case happened which was something that really electrified people here, me personally. When I heard about the Girls Rising campaign being kicked off in Pakistan it was something that I really wanted to support, it just made sense to lend my voice to the campaign to give it more publicity.
4. You have people like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and other A-List celebrities in the US that have given their support to the campaign. What does it mean for Pakistan to be given this campaign?
It is important. We had this whole thing about Malala and what happened to her was extraordinary but then her story got bigger than Pakistan. She went to the UN; she’s not going to come back here so we needed something to reinforce the idea that girls’ education is so vital. Educating a girl is the most effective way of breaking the cycle of poverty. So we needed something to show that girls education could not begin and end with Malala Yousafzai, it goes on. It is a global issue which affects girls in all countries so people and girls in Pakistan can see it’s equally difficult for girls in other countries so they don’t feel that this is an isolated problem. So it gives a push and a global connection. We have to also raise awareness and make people understand what the issues are and what the importance is. We are also asking people to take a stand with the Girls Rising campaign.
5. The campaign is focused on major cities in the country; how do you intend to target those that are in areas that are more rural?
We are trying to get the media involved. They need to highlight the cause because Pakistanis all watch television and listen to the radio. The film is going to schools, various other forums, which will help, create a momentum, and hopefully it will spread.
6. How do you intend to tackle the misconceptions that people get about girls education?
What we hope to do is really listen to them and listen to their misconceptions about girls’ education because there are people that have reservations and for us to tackle them we need to know what they are. I know what a lot of them are from my own work, for example some people are worried that the school is too far away, it is not secure or that they have to be in the same classroom as boys. But we need to know their worries so we can educate their child in a safe and secure way.
7. What if they are not willing to talk to you?
When they are not willing to talk to us, we send one of them who speak their language who then become our advocates. If you are willing to make a little bit of effort, a lot of things can change.
8. There are three dates to the initial premier of Girls Rising Pakistan, are there any plans to expand this in the future?
Yes, this is just the first round. We hope to do the second round six months down the line in other major cities such as Islamabad and Peshawar along with television and in subtitle. We are just waiting to see the kind of support we have and how much bigger we can take it.
9. From what we have already done, do you think that the situation on girls’ education is improving?
I can tell you in Swat, where Malala comes from, numbers for girls education went up from 34% to 50% so there can be a huge difference made. But really, we are at rock bottom, it cannot get worse than this it, can only get better. We have to address the issue of making people aware that girls should go to school and making sure that there are schools for those girls to go to. There is an issue of capacity in Pakistan; there are not enough schools and not enough teachers. It has to get bigger than this, this is just the start.
10. What was the “Malala” effect on this whole campaign?
The whole Malala issue is very unique, her story is very unusual. The story in the Girls Rising campaign is more of what actually happens, not every girl gets shot, but so many girls get pulled out of school at 12 and get married, these are problems that have been happening for decades.
11. How do you tackle issues such as child marriages?
It is really important to make people understand the importance of allowing a girl to finish her education and achieve physical, emotional and mental maturity before marriage. It is very hard because you have the complicating factor of many people interpreting Islam in a certain way that is not in the best interests of the girl. We have a lot of pushbacks from religious conservatives who do not want to see girls educated because they think it is a danger to Islamic society and that it is an attempt to put secularism on people. There is a lot of misinformation and a lot of disinformation; but the only answer is re-education with the help of the progressive religious community.
12. How do you educate parents about this issue?
The simple answer is to have them involved in the process. To consult with them, hold community meetings at the school and to inform them about what the girls are learning. We are starting to introduce adult learning classes. People have to be brave. They have to be courageous and be willing to take a chance. This has to be women led. There is a very middle class mentality that you shouldn’t educate women, they just have to stay home and look after the children.