By Zeeba Hashmi –
Insecurity, discrimination, intimidation — Pakistani kids are paying for the right to education, sometimes with their lives. I remember Arifa, a sprightly eight-year-old, from my college days; she would sneak into my hostel room with a book and pen in hand, pleading with me to teach her to read and write even in the dead of winter.
Arifa wasn’t doing any homework for her class. She wasn’t going to any school, and was perhaps, never allowed to attend one. But she was doing it because she wanted to feel equipped for life when she grew up. Arifa said she wanted to be brave like all girls going to school around her.
Years later into my career, which revolves around education sector, whenever I see children braving their way to the school irrespective of their environment, Arifa’s face flashes in my mind.
The national education expenditure is dismal by any standard and it is no surprise Pakistan’s literacy rate is a cause of much shame across the globe.
Despite the oppressive environment that is leading to societal decline, it is the resilience of the children attending schools here that is more moving.
A stark awakening is before us. The systemic failures of the education machinery have meant concerns over the security of students have been overlooked. Students, particularly those belonging to minorities face intimidation of different forms at schools, and there is no system through which they can seek protection and continuation of education.
For instance, there have been continuing reports of schools being forced by the community clergy to expel students belonging to the Ahmedi sect — an alarming episode was the expulsion in 2011 of dozens of their students as well as a teacher from two public schools in Hafizabad District.
The syllabus and methods of teaching are also a cause of heartburn for non-Muslim students. On one of my visits to a Christian Missionary school in Nankana Sahib, I was surprised to see a class instructor teaching Kalma to a Christian child.
The school administration blamed the non-availability of alternative text-books that they could use instead to prepare these students for annual board exams.
Apart from social, economic and religious factors that are making education inaccessible to the children, another dangerous form of intimidation has internalized deeply here: the threat of militants.
Two years ago, visiting a school for girls in Southern Punjab, the headmistress cautiously showed me around her school where I noticed a big playground vacant during recess.
“We have stopped sending our girls to the ground, it has been a year and a half since we have had an assembly here,” she revealed.
Seeing how astonished I was, she explained, “Did you notice the seminary just outside in the alley? They have threatened us with dire consequences if they see our girls outside”. She had complained about it to the police and other higher-ups but to no avail.
Arms in seminaries in Southern Punjab are not an alien concept yet the state is not ready to admit it despite empirical evidence of their existence. It is instructive to recall that not too long ago schools under direct threat of the militants were forced to close down for a few days in the capital.
It appears as if there’s a sinister agenda to keep an entire generation in control of the armed and powerful. Thanks to criminal negligence by the state in matters pertaining to the security of citizens, and of ensuring protection to students, in particular, we have seen schools and their students being directly harmed for their gender, religion/sect and ethnicity.
Soon after child activist Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head to prevent her from campaigning for education of girls, there were reports of four students belonging to Hazara community getting attacked with acid in their school van. This trend is now fast taking roots in urban centres as well.
Later in 2012, a young Mehzar Ali, belonging to the Shia sect, was shot and critically wounded as she was on her way to school in Karachi with her father, who was also hit and succumbed to his injuries. According to a government report, more than 700,000 students have been affected by militant activities in KPK alone.
Thanks to misplaced priorities — the spending on education as compared to defence budget, to name just one — the future of education in Pakistan is becoming bleaker by the day.
According to UNESCO’s Education for All Global Report 2012, there are 5.1 million children who remain without education, which is the second highest figure in the world for out-of-school children.
Amazingly, all these adversities have not been able to undermine the spirit of children wanting to pursue education against all odds, which makes it all the more heartbreaking.
Pakistan is a grim place to be in terms of education and health as well as the limited protection it provides to its citizens from militant and emotionally charged violent onslaught.
This is the kind of environment our children are exposed to with most of them remaining cut off from the education mainstream. Nevertheless, there are also extraordinary examples of courage. But no nation’s children should have to pay for their right to education with their blood.
The writer, a graduate of University of North Texas, lives in Lahore