New US law for more higher education scholarships for women

More Pakistani women are poised to gain access to higher education through scholarships funded by the United States after the US Senate on 1 January adopted an act requiring the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to include at least 50% women in its Merit and Needs-based Scholarship Program.

The programme is being implemented in Pakistan in collaboration with 30 local universities and the Higher Education Commission (HEC).

After the Senate vote, the Malala Yousafzai Scholarship Act is expected to be signed by US President Donald Trump before he leaves office this month. It was passed by the House of Representatives in March last year.

The act also requires USAID to report to Congress annually on the number of scholarships awarded under the programme, including the proportion of women across a range of academic disciplines.

Academics in Pakistan welcomed the US government initiative to support and increase access to higher education for Pakistani women.

“The United States has been supporting students for higher education opportunities in Pakistan through its scholarship programme, and the move by Congress to give 50% of these scholarships to females pursuing higher education is a welcome gesture which would further pave the way for increasing and strengthening women’s access to higher education,” the vice-chancellor of Rawalpindi’s Fatima Jinnah Women University, Saima Hamid, told University World News.

Islamabad-based women’s rights activist Tahira Abdullah told University World News: “Ours is a patriarchal society where there are so many barriers to women’s empowerment, whether it is education, employment or business. Bringing women on par with men in employment or in businesses starts with their equal participation in education.

“This initiative by the US Congress of awarding 50% of its Pakistan-focused scholarships to women should be emulated by the HEC as well, for its own scholarship programmes to allocate 50% to female students,” she said.

The US fully funded scholarship programme was initiated in 2004 with a grant of more than US$10 million and enhanced in 2013 with increased funding of over US$23 million and an expansion of the local partners network from 11 to 30 universities across all provinces of the country. Since 2010, around 6,000 scholarships have been awarded to women to receive higher education in Pakistan.

Women’s education in Pakistan has been under attack by the Taliban for years. In June 2013 Taliban terrorists attacked a bus carrying female students inside the campus of Sardar Bahadur Khan Women University in Quetta city, Balochistan province, killing 14 female students.

In 2009 the Taliban bombed the women-only campus of Islamabad’s International Islamic University, killing six people, including three females and injuring 29, including 26 female students.

Inspired by Malala Yousafzai

US Congress named the act after Yousafzai, Pakistani girls’ education activist and the youngest Nobel Laureate, who was shot in a failed assassination attempt by the Taliban in Pakistan in October 2012, when she was just 15 years old. The shooting was in revenge against her advocacy for female education in the country.

Born in Swat valley in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 1997, she was herself affected by the banning of girls’ education when the Pakistani Taliban overpowered Swat town and adjoining areas in 2007, which led to a robust military offensive by Pakistani forces to clear the area of the Taliban.

In section 2 of the act, The US Congress recognises Yousafzai’s advocacy for girls’ education in Pakistan which “made her a target of the Taliban … The Taliban called Malala’s efforts to highlight the need for education for women and girls an ‘obscenity’.”

The act also makes a special reference to Yousafzai’s 2013 speech at the United Nations Youth Assembly in New York when she said: “So let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism. Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.”

In its section on findings, the act refers to the World Bank’s note on girls’ education that states: “The benefits of women’s education go beyond higher productivity for 50% of the population. More educated women also tend to be healthier, participate more in the formal labour market, earn more income, have fewer children, and provide better health care and education to their children, all of which eventually improve the well-being of all individuals and lift households out of poverty. These benefits also transmit across generations, as well as to their communities at large.”