Exploring ‘Spaces’ of Learning: Girls’ Education during COVID in Pakistan

23 July 2021

Aliya Khalid, Musharfa Shah


Any continuous area or expanse which is available for consumption is typically referred to as ‘space’. In the Urdu language, this can translate to ‘khalaa’ understood as the ‘absence’ of forms, but at the same time generative of other or newer forms, much like silence in a musical composition that exists to amplify preceding or proceeding sounds, or negative space in art that helps contrast black space. Circumstances may expand and contract the amount of space within which opportunities manifest – such as to live a healthy life, receive an education, be politically active or learn without fear of repercussion. In this sense, space is not only limited to the physical, but also psychological and cultural domains of human existence.

Women and girls of contemporary Pakistan have long been navigating different types of spaces, their journeys often characterised by a struggle to carve opportunity beyond the private space (home) into the public. Poet/writer Fahmida Riaz, for instance, often narrated the diminishing presence of women in public spaces, responding to the repressing efforts of the ruling regime in Pakistan at the time. Riaz’s poem ‘Four Walls and a Black Veil’ (2003) was in response to the objectification of women in the time of Zia Ul Haq’s dictatorship (1977-1988). Zia used the imagery of Muslim woman as ‘veiled’ and seen inside the four walls of the house (the private). This theory was famously known as ‘the veil and the four walls’ (Zubair & Zubair, 2017). Riaz challenged this idea in her work and compared Zia’s idea of ‘veil’ to a sheet for shrouding the dead alluding to how patriarchy, which pulsated within the society like the stench of a corpse, was what needed to be shrouded in the veil - not the female form.

In this rich history of feminist struggle, which is better documented elsewhere, education (often in schools) has appeared for many young girls and women as a productive ‘space’. Although learning does not always or only happen in schools, and even schools or the journey to it can become unsafe, literature shows that education/school/madrassa is generally a culturally respected space (Shafiq, 2015). Girls’ reduced access to education in Pakistan is often a complex issue of state provision inefficiencies, intersectional inequalities, physical safety, and multidimensional poverty. However, schools once accessed, open spaces for social interaction, personal growth, and peer learning (Khalid, 2020). When this opportunity is withdrawn, young girls not only lose access to formal teaching, but the social advantages that they gain from school.

The outside educational space for girls and others in Pakistan

Pakistan has an educational equity problem, most notably in terms of gender (Ali, 2020). This is not surprising given that 22.5 million children in Pakistan are out of school, with girls forming a majority. According to recent figures (ASER, 2019), the situation seems to have improved - especially in urban areas where there is more gender equality between boys and girls. However, being enrolled in school does not automatically translate into performance. For example, only 38% girls compared with 46% boys can read at least 3 basic sentences in Urdu or a local language. Similarly, only 36% of girls compared with 43% of boys can complete at least a single-digit subtraction problem. But metrics on access and foundational literacy/numeracy only scratch at the surface of a much deeper problem.

Girls’ education is a highly intersectional issue, affected by multiple forms of disadvantage stemming from multidimensional poverty (Crenshaw, 1991). It is generally accepted that when facing economic problems, a girl child will be the first in the family to be withdrawn from school (Lloyd et al., 2007). It is also argued that the disadvantages to educational attainment for girls increase during military governments (Azhar, 2009). Concerns regarding daughters’ safety are also known deterrents to girls’ education (Suleman et al., 2015). However, literature also shows that when parents (especially mothers) are afforded opportunity to express/take decisions, they support their daughters’ education and hold high aspirations for their future (Sharma and Wotipka, 2019; Khalid, 2017, 2018 and 2020). The issue has been intensified because of the pandemic in which education has relied heavily on educational technology. Families that struggle to provide sustenance will unlikely be able to afford technology (Umair, 2020). Girls have been badly impacted by the pandemic with girls forming 60% of those who did not return after the lockdown (Ali, 2020).

The inside space for learning: girls’ experiences of learning during COVID

Formal schooling only addresses one side of the coin without engaging with the question of what it means to be a girl in Pakistan who is seeking an education. When girls go to school, the environment both outside and inside of schools is often inhospitable for them (Unterhalter, 1999). Once a girl enters her home, the friendliness of her domestic environment towards her education (and related opportunities) depends very much on the economic and social vectors that constitute the home. In such a context, most state-led initiatives for education were limited to content provision through TV, radio or some form of e-learning, all of which required girls to engage with a learning medium at home. But a report confirms that only 20% of girls and boys used TV to continue their education, 3% used radio, and 75% of those who owned a mobile device could only afford data intermittently with girls finding it harder to access any kind of device (Imran, 2020). The constraints to knowledge access may be visible clearly through such statistics, but they simultaneously indicate that there is still very little attention being paid to the psychological impacts of Covid-induced school closures on children, especially girls. Learning spaces that may have already been less than hospitable for girls earlier have become even more so. In these circumstances, it becomes imperative for the state to actively design policy interventions that bring relative equity to learning spaces and opportunity for all children, particularly females.

Some steps forward

Children who do return to school will have been psychologically affected by educational (and social) uncertainty during lockdowns. It is essential that this is recognised as a trauma with girls likely having borne the heaviest load, essentially an act of starting from ‘ground negative’.

The government can support schools in caring for their students through a mixed strategy of counselling assistance/helplines to both students and school staff (teaching and non-teaching). It will be important for the state to remain mindful that teachers and staff will also have struggled against economic shocks – some more than others, whether through their personal/professional experiences or those of their family members. Government regulations must acknowledge this and provide appropriate fall-back options for teaching and support staff at educational institutions. These can include (in the public sector) financing of mandatory provision of counselling services through district education hierarchies, which now exist in all provinces and areas of Pakistan; or (for the private sector) a modest incentive structure like a competitive bonus scheme for schools that pay special attention to the mental health of teachers and students.

Covid-induced lockdowns have forced some 10,000-15,000 low fee non-state schools that cater to 23% of children into permanent closure. To support small scale non-state educational provision, the government may consider giving institutional loans in a bid to revive this segment of the (educational) economy (Ali, 2020).

Most importantly, however, this remains an opportune time for Pakistan to increase its GDP share for the education sector. The long promised 4% of the GDP share (as a minimum) has never been needed more than today, especially for primary education where foundational learning losses can be expected to have significant effects into the future (OKR, 2020). As the new budget passes, and provinces prepare for allocations downstream, this is the right time to rethink the mental and social costs the education sector must bear this year to preserve whatever educational gains Pakistan has made over the past decade in student access and nascent stages of basic literacy.

Aliya Khalid, Affiliated Lecturer and Research Associate, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Musharfa Shah, MPhil Education Leadership and Management 2022, LUMS