ONE child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world. Indeed, what Malala Yousafzai recommended for the world is true for Pakistan. Although it is pretty difficult to come up with one overarching policy proposal which could help end chronically entrenched and profoundly ingrained gender disparities within our patriarchal society, and transfigure the sociocultural and political outlook embedded for ages, investing in girls' education would be a sagacious start.
In Pakistan, unfortunately, politically motivated government priorities, institutional weaknesses, irrational policies, and myriad socio-religious and cultural factors have led to the exclusion of females. However, keeping females uneducated - intentionally or otherwise - has proved to be a glaring omission with lasting repercussions for individuals and for the whole of society.
Gender equality is a sine qua non for a progressive society. The significance of female education cannot be overemphasised as it works through multiple transmission mechanisms in reducing poverty, spurring economic growth and putting breaks on population growth. Empirical research suggests that investment in education has high pay-offs and expected returns are much higher for developing countries.
The prospective social dividends of this investment are remarkable. An educated female prefers to marry late and have fewer children as she places increased emphasis on the 'quality' of the child over 'quantity'. The opportunity cost of child rearing for an educated mother becomes higher than a mother with no or limited education because an educated woman has better prospects of getting a well-paid job.
Despite the fact that higher education leads to upward revision in the expected future income, which may increase demand for children, in Pakistan (with already bigger family sizes) the substitution effect would outweigh the income effect and this would help reduce demand for children (helping reduce fertility and birth rates) as the mother climbs up the education ladder.
Education is an inalienable asset and this consolidates a woman's position in the household and in society, enabling her to own property, accumulate assets, decide where to work, whom to vote for, when and whom to marry and how many children to have. The relationships between women's empowerment and economic development for South Asian countries were investigated by MIT economist Esther Duflo in 2012 and she estimated a strong correlation between female literacy and social well-being in the South Asian region.
It can be inferred from contemporary research and from the successful experience of the developed world that investing in female education is a safe, secure and rewarding investment both at the micro and macro level and this investment can be as good as investing in gold.
Women in Pakistan face an extremely restricted set of socio-economic choices. Pervasive illiteracy among females renders them ineligible for well-paid jobs, reducing their expected future incomes; parents find daughters costly and unproductive and marry them off at an early age. Early marriages exacerbate female bargaining power within the household and negatively affect the educational prospects of children, especially daughters, who are again the future mothers.
Some recent statistics help highlight the existing gender disparity in Pakistan. Sixty per cent females (aged 15-24 years) are illiterate while the female tertiary gross enrolment rate is 9pc (UNDP, 2007 and 2014).
Gender inequality can be gauged by Pakistan's rank (141) in a recent report on gender gap for 142 countries (World Economic Forum, 2014). If we take the poverty line at $2 per day, then half of the country's population is poor (World Bank, 2014) and the incidence of poverty falls disproportionately on females. The female (aged 15+) labour force participation rate in South Asia has plummeted to 30pc in 2013, well below the participation rate of 62pc for East Asia and 50pc for the world (Asian Development Bank, 2015). A woman's asset ownership and her share in high-paid jobs are distressingly low in urban areas, let alone rural Pakistan. The accumulative losses of neglecting female education are too big to quantify, yet there is no doubt that they enervate economic growth. All encompassing poverty, regressive development indicators, rapid population growth, and a high fertility rate are some of the palpable consequences of this gratuitous underinvestment in female education.
Educational gender equality is a sine qua non for nurturing an egalitarian and progressive society. A lukewarm educational policy is no longer an option if Pakistan wants to accelerate and compete on the economic and social fronts with the rest of the world, especially with its neighbours.