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Pakistani girls' schools in radicals' sights

As militancy surges in Pakistan's remote tribal areas, girls' schools have become targets. Despite the threats, girls' enrollment has continued to rise. Part 3 of three.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2007

PESHAWAR, Pakistan

All throughout the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Pakistan's impoverished western border with Afghanistan, lie the ruins of barbershops and music and video stores – symbols of Western-oriented life that religious extremists have destroyed in a growing wave of violence.

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Now Islamist militants have a new target, and if they are successful, observers say their campaign could be disastrous for Pakistan's future.

In what appears to be an escalating spree over the last year, extremists have bombed at least four girls' schools and circulated violent threats warning girls to stay at home. While no girls or school staff have been killed, girls in some areas have stopped attending classes – marking a direct blow to Pakistan's national enterprise of "enlightened moderation," which posits female education as a central pillar.

Pakistan finds itself at a precarious tipping point: Tremendous gains have been made in female education in recent years, but a considerable gender gap remains. Extremists' efforts to undermine education for women, who are historically one of Pakistan's most potent forces of moderation, could further empower Pakistan's growing ranks of Islamist militants.

"Because girls are the ones suffering from these oppressive ideas, if they are educated they will be a better ally in the promotion of liberal ideas and secularism," says Farzana Bari, who heads the gender studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

The continuing wave of attacks could tilt Pakistan's sensitive political balance, observers say, and hurt crucial economic development efforts. As female education improves, infant mortality rates tend to decrease, family health improves, national incomes rise, and female citizens become more politically active and aware of their rights, say development experts.

"You'll be keeping half the population of Pakistan idle [if the bombings continue]," says Syed Fayyaz Ahmad, the joint education adviser of the Ministry of Education in Islamabad. "[Girls] would not add to the economic development of NWFP. If your female children are not educated, your next generation of boys and girls are affected."

Entrenched tribal, religious, and economic imperatives in conservative areas regard the schooling of girls as either improper, since girls should not venture outside the purview of the family home, or unnecessary, since girls are often needed for work.

As a result, Pakistan has one of the highest rates of female illiteracy in South Asia, at about 60 percent, and the lowest rate of primary school enrollment for girls, at somewhere between 42 and 48 percent. Those shortcomings are particularly pronounced in the NWFP, which, as of 2004, had the lowest ratio of female enrollment of any province in Pakistan, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). In areas like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the government's presence has historically been weakest, only 1 percent of women and girls are literate.