Sep 09, 2016

    Feathers fly over giving chickens to schoolgirls

    THE Punjab government wants to provide schoolgirls with "four chickens, a cock and a cage" to teach them about kitchen skills, nutrition and raising poultry.

    The public is either amused or outraged.

    In an age when other countries are preparing their women to operate at the frontiers of science and technology, Pakistan wanting to teach its girls about the spicy chicken stew does sound absurd.

    But in a country where 25 million children are out of school, of whom 55 per cent are girls, and almost 40 per cent of children under age five are stunted and underweight, mocking and dismissing programmes that could encourage school attendance and improve nutrition outcomes for poor families is a luxury available only to those who have never known hunger or illiteracy.

    We should ask if giving a small flock of hens is really a recipe for reinforcing gender stereotypes and furthering the oppression of women as argued by women's rights activists.

    Philanthropist Bill Gates and his Gates Foundation would disagree. It is giving small poultry flocks to families in Sub-Saharan Africa to combat malnutrition, lift families out of absolute poverty and empower women economically.

    It finds that this programme has significant positive outcomes for women in Africa.

    Unfortunately, Mr Gates will not be the one implementing the plan in Pakistan.

    But this is a policy debate we will never have.

    The Punjab government will rely on hatching new plans to cover old failures, and civil society will respond with shallow knee-jerk reactions not grounded in reality or research.

    While the colossal sexism of the civil bureaucracy of Punjab is appalling, the lack of thought put into a scheme that could combat some of our gravest challenges is criminal.

    Given the poor quality of Pakistani education and impoverished nutritional status of our children, it is unlikely our population will be able to meet the demands of a rapidly modernising economy and be competitive in global labour markets.

    This is a future we should be very afraid of; if we fear this future even in the slightest, then we should bring to our policymaking a thoughtfulness that is currently missing.

    Many children, particularly girls, have dropped out of school because the government has not been able to provide basic education facilities such as boundary walls for safety and security, clean toilets or drinking water in existing schools.

    Having to cover long distances to reach the nearest school remains a major reason for girls dropping out or failing to enrol.

    When we don't even have the basics in place, building poultry farms in the sky seems like a bad proposition.

    Creative and new solutions, such as the chicken and egg programme or other incentive schemes targeted at getting children into schools, can be complex and difficult to implement and monitor but, if done right, can be effective.

    We should spend some resources on piloting and learning from new programmes before rolling them out on a larger scale.

    The government should channel the bulk of its efforts and resources into getting the basics in place - across Pakistan and not just in Punjab.

    Instead of spending disproportionate time chasing the next new breakthrough idea, the government should spend time fulfilling old promises and bringing the severely lacking educational and health infrastructure up to speed.

    On the other hand, civil society activists should take a break from the online outrage and put some thought into their support or opposition of public policy schemes.

    While we should fight against the sexism embedded in our society, we should also let a few girls have some chickens - even if it is under the pretext of making them better in the kitchen.

    We should do whatever we need to get girls into school and then keep them there for as long as possible.