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Pakistani women hope for change after Malala Nobel win

AFP | Sunday, Oct 12, 2014

MINGORA - Saima Bibi was just 13 when she was married off to settle a debt of honour, a common custom in Pakistan's northwest Swat Valley where Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai grew up.

A top student who got the highest marks in class, Bibi was forced to drop out of school and give up her dreams of an education.

Now aged 22, she says Malala has given her the "courage" to speak up to her husband and in-laws to try to go back to school, and is determined her four children will finish their studies.

"When Malala's picture was being printed in the newspapers, everybody in my family used to say it's a conspiracy against Islam. But I liked her from the beginning," she told AFP on a visit to the doctor in Mingora, Swat's main town.

Though derided by some for sullying Pakistan's reputation abroad, Malala's award has been widely hailed by the country's political leaders and the press.

It has also cast a spotlight on the abysmal rates of educational enrolment and literacy for children, especially girls.

While the 17-year-old campaigner was forced to leave her country after being shot in the head by Taliban gunmen two years ago, millions of other children miss out on schooling because they are more valuable to their families begging, working in fields, or married for dowry.

The Taliban razed hundreds of schools when they ruled Swat from 2007 to 2009 and while the militants have mostly been pushed back into hideouts in Pakistan's tribal areas, problems remain.

Some 25 million children aged from five to 16 in Pakistan are out of school, 14 million of them girls, according to Alif Ailaan, an education campaign group.

Ghost schools

Sumera Khan said she too was forced to drop out after eighth grade - not because of marriage but for a lack of schools where she grew up.

"I was fond of studying but... there were no middle and secondary level schools for girls in my village," the 21-year-old told AFP in Mingora, as she prepared dinner at home while her two children played on the floor.

"My family did not allow me to continue education with boys in higher classes," she added.

Khan also said she was inspired by Malala.

"She gave me courage to resume my studies and now I am planning to study privately... I will raise my voice for myself like Malala."

Official figures show 69 per cent of boys and 44 per cent of girls are enrolled in primary schools in Swat, figures that drop to just five and two per cent by the time they pass middle school aged 14 and enter secondary education - broadly mirroring national trends.

Iffat Nasir, a senior education official, said the majority of girls dropped out around the age of 13 to get married, while it is difficult for students in rural areas to access education.

"There is poverty in the region, so the girls start embroidery and tailoring work after primary school," she said.

"Families also use them for domestic labour." Such issues are by no means restricted to Swat or the country's Islamist insurgency-wracked northwest, with chronic underinvestment leading to around 7,000 "ghost schools" where the buildings stand but no classes are taught.

Classes may also not occur because of a lack of teachers.

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