EDUCATION, or rather the lack of it, in Pakistan has made world headlines on a number of occasions. Last week, the issue was once again in the limelight, but with a positive twist. Malala Yousafzai, our young campaigner for education, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala has done us proud as did Prof Abdus Salam 35 years ago when he became Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate (for physics).
Malala’s commitment to campaigning for girls’ education and her fearlessness in defying the Taliban have made her an icon. In spite of the danger to her life, she challenged the militants and their perverse mindset that led them to blow up hundreds of schools in the country. She has inspired many girls in Pakistan. Today, this inspiration is needed not so much to convince girls that education can empower them, as to instil the courage in them to resist the brutal opposition they face from vested anti-social elements, and not just the Taliban and their ilk.
Malala described the Nobel Prize as an honour for her and the voiceless children of the world. Most importantly, the prize also carried a message for the government of Pakistan. It has been found to be failing in its duty.
Education in Pakistan is seen as a privilege.
The federal and provincial governments are obliged under Article 25-A of the Constitution to provide free and compulsory education to all children from five to 16 years. Under the MDGs, we were supposed to have enrolled all our children of primary school age in schools by 2015. According to the government’s own admission, this goal will not be met.
Pakistan is not the only one lagging behind. Hence at its 69th session, the UN General Assembly deemed it necessary to propose 17 Sustainable Development Goals with 169 targets for the post-2015 phase. With 58 million out-of-school children worldwide (six million of them in Pakistan) it was a bold move by the global body to make education central to multi-sectoral development.
Baela Raza Jamil, who heads the Idara-e-Talim-o-Agahi, attended the session and summed it up: “The message that was coming to all of us again and again was that the low-hanging fruit was education and we need to position it through a ‘bundled’ approach — conceived concurrently with health, life skills, nutrition, financial inclusion and as a multi-generation /inter-generation strategy.” We are fortunate to have several NGOs with committed workers who are striving to do just that, ie providing education to the vulnerable, thus empowering them to improve their lives.
Through their efforts and thanks to Malala’s heroic activism, awareness of and demand for education has been growing over the years. There are few children in Pakistan whose parents are opposed to education per se. If we still have children not attending school we have to search honestly for the reasons.
The fact is that education in Pakistan is not treated as a human right for all but as a privilege for a few. Those denied this privilege find that schools are not within their reach due to their physical inaccessibility or, worse, their inadequacy or because they’re unaffordable.
Public-sector schools are not strategically located and are insufficient in number to meet the growing demand; they don’t provide quality education either. Ghost schools and teacher absenteeism discourage students’ enrolment/attendance. Irrelevant and poor quality education which parents find of no use to their children also drives them away from school.
The PPP’s patron-in-chief has invited Malala to work with him for the transformation of education in Sindh. If this is an indication that the PPP leader has realised that education in Sindh needs a massive overhaul, it is to be welcomed. But Bilawal Bhutto Zardari should understand that if the education system in the province ranks as the lowest in the country it is not because Sindh’s girls and boys are not inspired or have no desire to go to school. They also have dreams.
What they do not have are good schools that actually function and committed teachers who actually know how to teach. It is the system that needs to be fixed and expanded.
Only the government can do that. For this, it does not need an army of foreign advisers who have little knowledge and understanding of our culture and needs. Pakistan has many good academics who have indepth knowledge of education, pedagogy, textbooks and language in education. It is good to think global but it is more important to act local.
The Nobel Peace Prize has always been controversial. But the committee’s idea of making a Pakistani and an Indian (Kailash Satyarthi) — both championing the cause of children — share the award gives an innovative, powerful message. It is time for the two countries to turn their swords into ploughshares and make the future of their children their common cause.