The Untold Story of Ex-FATA Region
By Umer Orakzai
Historically, the principles of equity, discipline, and conformity to social codes have always remained integral to the people of the tribal region, or the ex-FATA region, that has merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Their strong social mores, which once defined their culture, are now beginning to change with the growing needs of the youth to keep pace with technological advancements and the rapid flow of information through social media over the last two decades. Some believe that the advent of technology may now begin to define new social codes for the older generation which may affect their understanding of the rigid family structures that lie at the heart of their culture. However, the youth there have long been dismayed by the lack of opportunities and facilities in the region, whereas their counterparts in other parts of the country avail themselves of technology that provides them with important opportunities in education and employment. They have long been demanding a drastic transformation to access greater opportunities in life. In their hunger for this change, the tribal youth have compromised by changing their identities for a better lifestyle for their future generations. On the other hand, the elders, or their community leaders, are not willing to easily accept changes in the tribal structure as they want to carry on with their forefathers’ legacies. In this generational strife between the youth and the community elders, the women are ignored, and the children are also easily forgotten. Women are considered as representatives of dignity and honor of the tribal culture and structure, however, their powerful contributions in history often get neglected when it comes to policy decision. The tribal women possess outstanding leadership qualities, carrying a vast vision for their families, tribes, and the region. Their role is also supported by history, where they have acted as heads of families, strategizing for their families and communities, and often surpassing their male counterparts. For example, Malalai of Maiwand, a tribal woman, is still revered through oral history for her visionary leadership and victory at the Battle of Maiwand in the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1880. These are the strong, foundational stories of tribal history that children and the youth have been deprived of learning about.
This is a matter of concern because these children will grow up to be the upholders of progressive values that were part of the cultural history before they fell into social and political oblivion. However, the crisis of children in learning looms larger than thought, more so for girls who remain out of access to schools. Currently, out of 1 million children aged 5-16 who are out of school, 66% are girls. Among the girls who are enrolled, 78% drop out beyond primary due to the lack of middle and high schools in most parts of the region. The education crisis in this area is more complex and challenging compared to the rest of the country. There is a systematic challenge on the supply side of school access, which is not due to the presumed cultural barriers for girls. Moreover, the dependency on public education institutions in the tribal region is 95-97%, especially when it comes to female education. There are few options for children between public or private schools, depending on the academic quality of these institutions. About 80% of the villages and towns in the tribal region don’t have private education institutions.
The quality of education and the availability of facilities, including teachers in the existing schools, can be gauged from one dismal example where only 170 out of 1,800 applications for the recruitment of police officers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were selected recently. The reasons for this poor performance are the quality of education these young candidates received while at schools. This points toward a major lack of preparedness for the youth to meet the challenges of employment and careers for a better living.
In another case, there is a serious lack of qualified teachers who could contribute positively to the cause of improving educational standards in the area. An attempt was made to initiate an accelerated learning program with the help of donors and community leaders, but due to the lack of women teachers, no recruitments could be made for the benefit of the girls who wanted to avail themselves of the non-formal educational programs. The program could derive no benefits due to lack of qualified human resource.
Another key factor that has been left unaddressed is the cessation of scholarship funding for hundreds of youth as a result of the Merger. The elders, or the elected parliamentarians among them in the previous tenure, could not raise concerns for youth coming from their constituencies.
The concerns of the youth remain unacknowledged, and it remains to be seen if their issues can be taken up as the next elections are around the corner.
In this complex situation where the youth is disappointed, the community elders or the Maliks are confused about the demands of the old and the new generations, the women are ignored, and the children are forgotten. The question should now be pointed towards the policy steps the government has to take to mitigate the social and economic problems that have compounded the region for years.
Not everything can be blamed on the state. With elections approaching fast, the political leaders who are now aggressively campaigning for votes must also pay heed to the fact that once they’re in the government, they will have to own the intrinsic problems and will have to offer better policies that could address concerns of the youth. Once in government and as members of provincial or national assemblies, the political leaders will have to take a stand for the collective problems the region suffers from.
In 2018, the merger was practically made possible with the 25th Amendment to the constitution whereby the areas falling under the FCR rule, or what has infamously been known as the draconian laws, were repealed, and the former areas were declared districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The merger, with the common application of the law, was supposed to have elevated the situation of the people, but it still has a long way to go. Not all that was planned under this merger could go ahead, thereby depriving people of opportunities. In 2019, the Newly Merged Districts (NMDs) had been given their representation in the Provincial Assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 16 general seats, 4 reserved seats for women, and 1 reserved seat for Non-Muslims, but unfortunately, these 21 worthy parliamentarians had not advocated for the tribal rights in the legislative business as per the people’s demand and the proposed merger plan. They remained silent in the parliament, and the funds promised for the uplifting of the tribal region in the merged plan document have not been invested in the ordinary people of the NMDs when it comes to education, health, and social welfare.
At present, the political competition has become more aggressive with the 12 seats of the tribal districts in the National Assembly now reduced to only 6 in the aftermath of the delimitation process carried out by the Election Commission of Pakistan for the upcoming general election in 2024. The eight seats allocated for FATA in the Senate of Pakistan (the Upper House) have also been withdrawn in view of the FATA merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The previous Parliamentary tenure (2018-2023) was more a transitional period, but neither the parliamentarians nor the ordinary people had understood the essence of parliamentary politics. In this tenure, the erstwhile FATA had 37 members in the National Assembly, the Provincial Assembly, and the Senate. However, despite their claims of representing the interests of the people, literacy rates have not improved during their tenure. There remains a serious dearth of teachers for STEM subjects, such as basic Maths and Science. There are one million out-of-school children in the Newly Merged Districts (NMDs) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but none of these parliamentarians have ever pointed out these issues in the parliament.
In the upcoming parliament, in which the newly merged district will only have 21 seats in the parliament. This includes 15 seats in the provincial assembly of KP and 6 seats in the national assembly of Pakistan. The 21 members in the parliament representing the people of FATA will have a challenging time fixing their regional issues. There are major challenges that these members need to prioritize on their list of things that need to be fixed. Do Sajid Hussain Turi from Kurram, Shah Gee Gul Afridi from Khyber, Shaukatullah Khan from Bajaur, and Mohsin Dawar from Waziristan have any concrete strategies for restoring PEACE in the region? Are these candidates aware of the literacy rate in the tribal region? Do they know about the current number of Out-of-School Children in the tribal region? Or do they have mechanisms for improving the Student Learning Outcomes in this region? They all must know about all these challenges in their respective districts, but it’s the people who need to prioritize their demands from these candidates. The candidates need to make a pledge to improve the socio-economic indicators while linking them with the education scores in the region if they are elected.
Their political manifestos shouldn’t only target providing access to education to the out-of-school children in their constituencies but also need to define strategies for providing quality education to the students enrolled in public schools. They shouldn’t only have an understanding of the unemployment rate in their constituencies but also need to have an understanding of the job market and provide a vision for connecting academia with the industry for future market trends. In the short term, the youth need to be equipped with the required market skills to sustain themselves.
Change can only happen if the locals own their responsibilities in resolving their issues and accept the change with the fast-changing world norms. The youth will never be disappointed if they are provided job opportunities in their own region. The elders will accept the change if their culture and tradition are provided protection. The women will have their voices if they are provided space. The children will be future leaders if they are provided with their basic right to education.
The writer a resident of the tribal region and based in Islamabad. He is a public policy professional, with extensive experience in dealing with complex social and political environments. He works closely with the parliament and education departments in providing technical support for the improvement of Student Learning Outcomes across Pakistan. He has developed an extensive network of associates and colleagues spanning across the political spectrum of Pakistan in addition to the close interaction with the executive in Islamabad.