KARACHI, Pakistan, March 29 (UPI Next) -- Pakistan's Sindh provincial government is planning a literacy program to reach women and girls in remote areas via cellphone, a project leader says.
The country has a national literacy rate of 70 percent for males and 47 percent for females, the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey 2011-2012 shows. In Sindh's urban areas, the male literacy rate is 85 percent and female literacy rate is 70 percent, but in rural Sindh the figures are 58 percent for males and 23 percent for females, whose opportunity to pursue an education is often hindered by the religious and cultural tradition known as purdah, which limits their ability to move outside their homes unless accompanied by a male relative.
The six-month program, expected to start this year, will be aimed at girls and women ages 15 to 25 in rural areas, the senior program manager for the digital literacy project, Ghulam Nabi Leghari, said.
It will focus initially on women who have never attended school. A female coordinator will visit selected candidates' homes to give weekly classes and regular lessons will be sent to them by cellular phone.
"Initially the program will be sending text messages to the female students. If they and their families agree to send them, then classroom teaching will begin," Leghari told UPI Next.
The classroom phase would involve three hours of work a day, six days a week for two months. In the third month, students would receive cellphones and would be able to send and receive Sindhi-language text messages, using software developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and a local telecommunications company.
"Learners will be selected on the basis of whether they are semiliterate. This criteria may be relaxed in … some special cases. Around 750 cellphone sets will be provided to learners, 30 for teachers, 10 for coordinators and 10 for monitoring purposes," Leghari said.
He said students in the program would be able to send text messages free for four months and that an organization would be hired to translate messages in Urdu -- Pakistan's national language and the language of the original training materials -- into Sindhi, and handle other functions related to the project, including training teachers.
Shaista Sattar, a 25-year-old woman who has never attended school, said the program could have a positive impact on the lives of rural Pakistani girls and women:
"It is very important that girls will be trained to use the cellular phones and how to write and send text messages," Sattar told UPI Next.
"Besides," she said, "women and girls will also be able to receive education through cellphones. They'll be able to take their lessons whenever they have free time."
Provincial Senior Minister for Education and Literacy Nisar Ahmed Khuhro told UPI Next that female literacy is important in any country's development, and in regions where female literacy is low, speedy programs need to be implemented.
The provincial Education Department is planning to start mobile-based literacy programs in three districts -- Jacobabad, Shaheed Benazirabad and Thatta -- where female literacy rates are the lowest. Each district will have 10 centers, where the educational content of the text messages will be prepared and sent to students.
"The main purpose is to open 30 centers for female adult literacy to help female learners improve their acquired basic literacy skills through mobile phones, and apply these skills for their own betterment as well as the betterment of other females of the area, and improve the overall living standard of the village or community," the minister said.
Interactive sessions using computers and the Internet will be used in addition to mobile phones, he added.
Provincial Education Secretary Fazlullah Pechuho said the project would help girls in remote areas who have less access to primary schools.
"If the project is successful then the circle of the program will be extended to other districts to ensure provision of basic education to females," Pechuho told UPI Next.
UNICEF pointed to low levels of public spending on education in its 2012 report, Situation Analysis of Children and Women in Pakistan.
Although Pakistan has signed up for the Education for All global initiative begun in 1990 by UNESCO to meet all adult education needs by 2015, and the U.N. Millennium Development Goals -- which include providing universal primary education by 2015 -- "consistently low levels of public expenditures on education and on social services in general, suggest that the level of political commitment is, in practice, rather weak," the report said.
"The EFA Global Monitoring Reports ... have highlighted that Pakistan is off track for achieving universal primary education by 2015, and accounts for a substantial share of the global number of children out of school," the report found.
Moreover, UNESCO has said, the 7.3 million children out of school in Pakistan in 2009 represented 34 percent of the country's primary school-age population.
A 2012 report by the provincial government found Sindh's literacy rate had stalled for the previous three to four years at 59 percent, with female literacy at 22 percent and more than half of school-age children not attending school.
"Currently, the biggest challenge for Sindh is out-of-school children. More than 50 percent of children are out of school. Keeping in view these challenges, Sindh has to come up with out-of-box solutions to improve the literacy rate of the province," the report, issued by the provincial government's education management information program known as SEMIS, states.
Sindh has 47,557 schools, of which 42,328 are functional and 5,229 are closed, including 3,995 temporarily closed and 1,234 permanently closed, SEMIS data shows.
The availability of teachers was described as "worrisome." Nearly 20,000 schools have one teacher only, resulting in schools having to teach multiple grades together, while 9,103 schools have two teachers.