According to UNESCO estimates, globally, 132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower-secondary school age, and 67.4 million of upper-secondary school age. UNICEF reports 15 million of those girls come from the East Asia/Pacific region.
Every fifth girl in the region was unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10 according to 2020 figures. The pandemic has also caused increases in gender-based violence, early marriage and teenage pregnancy.
One way of pushing for increased education for girls is through projects such as PAWA, which focuses on empowering teenage girls through education and social projects. They operate a number of projects in India, Nepal, Cambodia, Malaysia and Pakistan.
In the last two years PAWA has worked with Nepalese underprivileged families, in a project where girls are selected for academic and social achievement. Though there are some public schools in Nepal, PAWA says standards are very low. For very poor families there is no alternative to private education. PAWA help with fees, but as such, they are limited in how many girls they can support.
In Nepal there is a very high rate of girls being sold off for marriage and there is a lot of child trafficking. Zehan from PAWA said, “We’re really trying to demonstrate to these families that girls have a value too. And most girls actually contribute back to their families and their communities… Then the families don’t see them as someone to sell off or pass on or marry off.”
PAWA is doing similar work in India through Karuna Trust, a Buddhist organisation. As in Nepal, changing mindsets is what they have tried to do for the last six years — to get families to allow girls to attend school.
Early marriage is a big problem in India because girls are often seen as property. Many young girls are raped in rural areas, which is one of the reasons they don’t want to send girls to school. In 2018 there were 33,000 reports of rapes, more than 93 per cent of which were committed by someone known to the victim. It’s sometimes said to be for the security of the girls to marry them off young, before anything happens to them. The BJP government has pledged to crackdown on this crime, but it is, unsurprisingly, still on the rise.
PAWA asserts that education is key because educated women are more aware of the dangers and risks involved in being a woman, as well as having a better understanding of birth control options.
"Banani has been with Nishtha since she was a small girl, she comes from a very poor background, with her father being an agricultural labourer. She studied hard and was supported by Nishtha all through school and beyond, she got a scholarship and has now graduated with a masters in Bengali from the University of Kolkata. This is the first time any girl in the project has reached this level of education, and everyone is delighted. Banani now wants to study to become a teacher, and meanwhile is offering free tuition classes to girls in her locality.
"I have got Nishtha besides me since I was a child and it was Nishtha who presented me the opportunity to be what I am today. We come from a family where thinking about studying or completing it is absolutely a day dream. But it has become true only because of Nishtha. Nishtha has taught us how a girl can change the world through education. If a girl stands on her own feet, she can do any good thing she wants.”
The pandemic has affected all of PAWA’s projects in Asia. Schools have had to close in both Nepal and India. PAWA have been trying to keep girls engaged online, but many families don’t have online learning equipment. PAWA has sent extra Covid aid, including food parcels and hygiene kits.