Interview: Prof. Ruth Jepson, on “Female Education in Pakistan”

Ruth is the Director of SCPHRP and a Professor of Public Health in the School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh. She is a co-Director of the GroundsWell Consortium and a co-Investigator on PHIRST Fusion. She is particularly interested in developing and evaluating complex interventions and in undertaking research in partnership with service providers and users and has recently written a book on the subject with other members of SCPHRP (Developing Public Health Interventions)

How would you describe the current state of female education in Pakistan?

Not coming from Pakistan, this is difficult for me to answer. However, the evidence suggests that females face disproportionally more barriers than males in accessing and completing education.  

What are some of the challenges and barriers that girls face in accessing education?

So I am from the United Kingdom which has very equal access for both girls and boys and we are very lucky in that respect. Access to free education up until 17 or 18 years is available to everyone. From my understanding of the education system in Pakistan,  barriers include the availability of good quality local schools; educational costs; loss of a family member who can contribute to the household; gendered roles; religious beliefs; domestic violence; low status of women; and cultural norms. If access to education were similar to the UK, some of these challenges would still persist. So it is a very complex issue.

What role do you believe parents and families play in supporting girls’ education, especially in developing countries like Pakistan?

I think that they can play a role to some extent in trying to support their education and empowering them to see themselves as having the potential to be valuable and important members of society. However, I do think that some of the barriers are more upstream and outwith the control of families – cultural and religious norms for example, plus the status of women in society in general. So however supportive a family is, the structural, social, and cultural norms are probably going to be the primary determinants of girls’ education.

How do you think the education system can be improved to better support and empower girls, especially in developing countries like Pakistan?

So the first step is to understand the problem, and the key determinants – these may be different in rural and urban areas, or for areas where cultural or religious norms are particularly strong. This needs to be done through in-depth conversations with women, girls, and educators. Some of the issues may be obvious – the location of the school, and the role of the girl in the household, but others may be less obvious. For example, many systems such as the educational system were originally designed by men and therefore tend to center the male rather than thinking of both males and females.

In the education system, this might mean that school buildings, the curriculum, the school day, etc may all have been developed without considering the specific needs of girls. If the education system is going to support and empower girls, it needs to look at all parts of the system to ensure that girls have been considered in the design and implementation. If we take school buildings for example, are they safe for girls to get to, and to move around in; do that provide them with the privacy they need when they are menstruating; do they feel as if they are places that young women want to spend time in and feel welcome and valued as equal to men.

Are there any particular subjects or skills that you believe are important for girls to learn in order to thrive in today’s world?

I think girls need to learn that they are equally as important as men and that their views are to be valued. In terms of skills, they need to learn how to navigate a hostile world with determination and resilience. So learning skills in how to problem solve, how to manage conflict, how to manage finances, how to differentiate between facts and beliefs, how to debate and discuss ideas, and how to make their voices heard.

What is the role of technology in promoting female education, and how can it be effectively utilized?

I think technology may help develop communities of women who can freely discuss and debate ideas and perhaps have access to knowledge that may otherwise be denied to them. I think it is most effective when it can bring women together, educate them on issues outwith the curriculum perhaps,  and empower them so that they do not feel alone.

What role do you believe male allies can play in promoting and advocating for female education?

Again, I think individual males can help to some extent (like families) but their influence is less than the influence of the social, cultural, and religious norms. I think change needs to come from the top as well, from politicians and lawmakers – to protect the rights of women and girls. So whilst males can support individuals or groups, they can’t on their own change society, which needs to happen at all levels – by changing how women and girls are viewed and treated by individuals, families, communities, workplaces, and society in general.

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