With the general election on the horizon, political leaders continue to make tall promises to end poverty and usher in an era of economic prosperity. According to the 2017 census, Pakistan’s population stands at a staggering 208 million, up 57 percent from the last count in 1998. If the country continues down this path, the population is projected to swell up to 458 million by 2050. At this pace, the government will need to build and operate 93,000 new primary schools over the next 20 years. Yet, despite consistent advocacy, there are close to zero candidates running on platforms that aim to curb overpopulation or to improve the quality of public education. This indifference is especially glaring, when there is evidence to show that these issues are not just closely intertwined but also will determine the country’s future Providing resources and building infrastructure to accommodate a rapidly-growing, young population is likely to become a burden on the country’s already fledgling economy. There are steps, however, that can be taken now to avert this impending crisis. First, the good news: Pakistan’s literacy rate has grown over the last 70 years — from 16 per cent in 1951 to 60 per cent in 2015. While this progress may seem promising, the gender gap in literacy has consistently grown; today, female literacy stands at 49 per cent while male literacy has reached 71 per cent. This disparity, which has consistently widened in the last two decades, highlights a significant need for more investment in girls’ education to expand access and meet quality standards. It is estimated that 18 to 20 million children aged 5-16 years are out of school. Given the context of a growing gender gap in literacy, we know that a majority of these children are girls in rural areas that lack public primary schools in proximity to villages and other small communities. Parents are less likely to send their daughters to school if they have to travel a long distance to get to school. Survey data from 2016 recorded that among five to 16 year-olds, 31 per cent of girls and 22 per cent of boys remained out of school. The incoming government must recommit to foster public programs to achieve universal enrollment in primary schools and pledge to increase secondary level enrollment to at least 60 per cent by 2020. According to the 2017 census, Pakistan’s population stands at a staggering 208 million, up 57 per cent from the last count in 1998. If the country continues down this path, the population is projected to swell up to 458 million by 2050 The problem of access is particularly alarming in far-flung areas of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where schools are either non-existent or dilapidated, lacking basic facilities like running water and electricity. Therefore, to address this fundamental problem, the government must foster public-private partnerships not just to build new schools but also to maintain quality standards so that primary schooling prepares students adequately for secondary education. Education is a crucial part of any country’s development aspirations. With a proper schooling, girls are empowered to pursue higher education, to participate in the workforce and contribute to the national economy, and most importantly, to make sound reproductive decisions. National survey data from 2013 shows that women’s use of contraception increases proportionally to their level of education. The same survey also confirmed that women with no education are 30 per cent less likely to use contraception than the national average, and therefore, have higher fertility rate than women who have some degree of education. These correlations are indicative of the importance of education in resolving our population crisis. By taking measures to provide quality education and facilitate steadily declining fertility rates, Pakistan stands the chance to reduce its school-age population and simultaneously develop a large, highly-skilled workforce by 2050. Education, in many ways, is empowerment. It is the government’s responsibility to engage a breadth of stakeholders into improving the quality of public education — especially for girls — not just to reduce the burden of a large population on public resources but more so to empower the people to contribute to our national prosperity. The author is a PhD scholar and work for the Population Council, Pakistan Chapter. He can be reached at [email protected] Published in Daily Times, July 12th 2018.