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Pakistan: Take-home rations bring girls to schools

Dec 17, 2009

UN World Food Programme's initiative to provide free food and cooking oil to school children is persuading poor families to send their daughters to school. The programme has already noted success in a 62% increase in girls' attendance in the last decade.

Dera Ismail Khan:  A major school feeding programme in Pakistan is helping some of the poorest families.

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"This is really a big help. In these times when things are so expensive, receiving [cooking] oil free of charge is a real bonus," Fareeda Bibi mentioned while placing the four-litre fortified oil tin by her tiny stove.

A tin of oil costs Rs 450 [US$5.5], and Fareeda needs at least three a month to cook for her family of eight.

"My husband earns Rs 5,000 [$61] a month as a carpenter, so our budget is tight. Over Rs 1,000 [$12.2] goes towards utility bills; we spend nearly 2,500 [$30.5] on food and then there are new shoes to be bought for the children or medical bills to pay for my parents-in-law. Every little bit that comes in free in such hard times is a bonus."

Fareeda's daughter Shama receives the oil at her school in Dera Ghazi Khan District in Pakistan's Punjab Province every month as part of a UN World Food Programme (WFP) operation run in conjunction with the government.

"The incentive is mainly to increase enrolment and keep the girls in school. The assistance is only given in girls' primary schools in Punjab. However, in NWFP [North West Frontier Province], Balochistan and Sindh, we have included boys as well," said Amjad Jamal, a WFP spokesman.

The programme had increased girls' enrolment by 25% and attendance by 62%
since 1998, said Marcelo Spinahering of WFP Pakistan. "Children are given high energy biscuits for onsite feeding in certain parts of the country. For the most part they receive take-home rations of four litres of fortified edible oil on a monthly basis and 50kg of wheat on a quarterly basis," he added.

Attitudes changing?

Fareeda said the school feeding programme had also played a part in persuading male members of her family to allow Shama to go to school, just like her two brothers.

"When they say there is no need to educate girls because they will never need to earn a living, I point out the oil we receive helps us run the house, and then they fall silent," Fareeda said, adding: "Of course it is very important to us that our daughter is being educated. I am not literate and this handicaps me."

Noor Bibi, the mother of another young schoolgirl said: "Even though we pay no fees at government schools, my husband says we spend too much on uniforms and books." The oil bonus helps 'balance' this, and she hopes to double the gains in a few years time when her two-year-old daughter is enrolled.

Fozia Hina, deputy district officer for Dera Ghazi Khan sub-district, said: "In areas such as ours, which is largely underdeveloped, parents do not like sending girls out of the house, even to school. Traditionally girls do not leave the home of their parents or husbands. Since the [cooking] oil incentive began several years ago more parents are eager to enrol kids. Mothers are keen to enrol even four-year-old girls."

Rewarded for attendance

Hina said the oil was given to girls who attend classes for at least 20 days a month.

At the Gorastanwala Government Girls primary school, 20 minutes drive from Dera Ghazi Khan town, Hina said about 200 girls were given a tin of oil every month.

"Enrolment has been rising steadily, and the school has now been upgraded to the middle level," she said.

The district of Dera Ghazi Khan, bordering Balochistan, has an overall literacy rate of 36%, according to official figures. This compares with a national rate of 50%. Estimates by NGOs working in the area put the literacy rate for women in Dera Ghazi Khan at below 20%.

"When there are eight or nine mouths to feed in a house, as there are in ours, we appreciate any help we can get," said Fareeda Bibi.

Source : IRIN
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