In the EU, children’s rights and access to education are taken for granted. Barring extreme circumstances, every child has access to affordable primary, secondary and often post-secondary education. UNESCO does not even report on the literary rates of EU countries, seemingly because it would show near 100 per cent. Unfortunately, this is not the case globally.
In 2016, the World Bank estimated that over 250 million children worldwide are illiterate, despite the fact that education is listed as one of the best ways of reducing poverty. Countries in south Asia have demonstrated particular challenges, especially when it comes to equal access for girls and boys.
Across south Asia, there has been a net increase in enrolment in primary education, from 75 per cent in 2000 to 89 per cent in 2010. However, an increase in net enrolment does not mean that the children are actually attending school. Nor is there a guarantee that they will continue their education until they graduate, especially when there are social, economic and political barriers to attending school.
One such barrier is the entrenched patriarchal norms relating to girls’ education, particularly apparent in Pakistan, where the net enrolment for girls is four per cent lower in primary school and seven per cent lower in secondary school.
The dropout rate of girls is also higher in these countries. There are a number of logistical and ideological explanations, including restrictive traditional values and inadequate infrastructure.
For girls enrolled in schools, many will be shamed or otherwise discouraged from attending, especially as they grow into teenagers and are expected to care for their younger siblings, or get married.
Those encouraged to attend school may face challenges like a lack of gender-separated toilets, or unrealistically long journeys to school that may be deemed “inappropriate” for unchaperoned girls.
School fees, or the cost of uniforms, may also prevent girls from attending school. If a family cannot afford to send all their children to school, generally the boys are given priority over the girls.
The issue of girls’ education is even more dire in rural areas of Pakistan (especially contested or conflict-rich areas like Baluchistan), where traditional gender-roles are deeply engrained.
Regardless, free and open access to education is enshrined in article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which entered into force in 1990.
The CRC is also one of the 27 “core conventions” listed as obligatory for the EU’s generalised scheme of preferences plus (GSP+) programme, a trade-benefit scheme intended to support developing nations economically while they improve their human rights records.
As a beneficiary of GSP+, Pakistan is required to ratify and implement the CRC. Adequate implementation means removing the barriers that the government controls, such as maintaining education facilities, keeping tuition fees affordable and providing public transportation whenever necessary and possible.
The Commission reports that the EU is Pakistan’s most important trading partner. This, coupled with the GSP+ programme, shows the vast potential Europe has to influence Pakistan, and to use that influence to encourage the country to prioritise girls’ education.
However, this potential is foiled if the EU does not demand clear and continuous results.
Simply accepting menial progress does not fulfil the obligations of the GSP+ regulations, nor does it comply with the founding principles of the European Union, which pledge to keep human rights at the forefront of all policymaking.
In order to maintain its reputation as a defender of human rights, the EU must encourage the promotion of girls’ education in Pakistan.