I remember Arifa, a lively 8-year-old girl who would come to help her mother keep the hostel rooms clean for the residents of college where I was residing in Lahore. The winter had set in; it was too foggy, grim, and dark for one to feel motivated enough to leave the comforts of a cozy bed and head out to attend classes. Evenings would be more horrible, it was when your head would be sore with cold, hands and feet, blue and blistering with pain of deep bone-penetrating blade of the extreme weather. It was reasonably tolerable by people who were blessed with all the right expensive accessories to keep them from the cold. But for Arifa, these things didn’t bother her at all. She would sneak into the room with a book and a pen in her hand and would plead with me to teach her to read and write. She 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 to handle the world when she grew up. She said she wanted to be brave like all girls going to school around her. Now in my professional life which revolves around social development and education issues, I have seen grimmer picture affecting the future of children on-ground. With national education expenditure at dismal level by any universal standard, the stress on literacy rate here is witnessed with much shame in the world. Despite the internal oppressive pressures that are resulting in societal decline, it is the resilience of the children attending schools, despite all odds, that provides hope.
What we are witnessing today is our horrible awakening. The systematic failures of the education departments is also to be blamed on their overlooking incidents of intimidation and bigotry that children, especially those belonging to the vulnerable and religious minority communities, have to face at schools. For example, expulsion of children from schools based on their religion is not uncommon in Pakistan. For years, there have been reports of school administrations being forced by the community clergy to expel students belonging to Ahmadi sect. Apart from expulsion and threat to security, the syllabus taught to them is also offensive to them. On one of my visits to a Christian Missionary school in Nankana Sahib, I was surprised to see a class instructor teaching Kalma for Muslims to a Christian child. The school had its own reasons for this to happen, which was the non-availability of alternative textbooks in place of compulsory Islamic studies. From my work experience with low-cost private schools in Punjab, there have also been horror stories of how girls have been sexually harassed by the influential in their villages—which serve as a major deterrent for girls’ education.
Apart from social, economic, and religious factors that are making education inaccessible to the children, another dangerous form of intimidation has internalized deeply here: extremism.
Years ago, I was visiting a girls’ middle school in South Punjab, where the headmistress was cautiously showing me around campus. I noticed a huge playground laying vacant at recess time.
“We’ve stopped sending our girls to the ground, it’s been a year and a half since we’ve had an assembly here”
Seeing me perplexed, she explained:
“Did you notice the Madrassa just outside in the alley? They’ve threatened us with dire consequences if they saw our girls playing outside”.
She had also complained about it to the police and other higher-ups, but to no avail. Arms in Madrassas in Southern Punjab is not an alien concept, yet the state is not ready to admit it, despite empirical evidence of their existence. If memory has not betrayed Pakistan yet, it was not too long ago when the schools got under direct threat of the militants, forcing the schools to close for a few days in the capital.
There is a sinister agenda to keep an entire generation in control of the armed and powerful. From the years that have been constructing our nightmare, we are seeing students getting shot for education, apart from having their schools blown which the government ignores while remaining busy in negotiating with the militants on humiliating terms. Soon after shooting of Malala, there were reports of four students belonging to Hazara community getting attacked with acid in their school van. This trend soon took fast roots in urban centres as well. Years ago, a young Mehzar Ali was shot and critically wounded as she was on her way to school in Karachi with her father who later succumbed to his injuries. In this very heartland of Pakistan’s commercial capital, another gory incident took place where militants/sectarian terrorists opened fire on polio-vaccine activists, some of whom were students. According to an estimate, there are more than 700,000 students who have been affected by extremist activities. With an extremely low rate of literacy in the world and with misplaced priorities for government spending on education in comparison to its defense budget, future of education in Pakistan is becoming bleaker by the day as it is eating away the very potential for progressive development here. According to UNESCO’s Education for All Global Report, 2011, there are 7.3 million children who remain without education and by 2019, it has risen to almost 22 million children which is the highest figure in the world for out of school children, and of there, girls have a share of 57% as compared to 53% in 2000, but the pace of this fall, despite the rapidly increasing population, is worryingly low. Yet all adversities caused by all opponents of development, resilience and determination of many brave children cannot be undermined so conveniently here.
Pakistan presents a grim reality in terms of education and health and limited protection it provides to its citizens from militant and emotionally charged violent onslaught. These are the conditions that are very well-known to our children, most feel discouraged and remain deprived of mainstream education. But there are also extraordinary examples of courage to be found as well. Where Pakistan is sinking fast in the piths of ignorance, there is also the side of this nation that is struggling for a brighter future: and this time, it is this nation’s children that sacrificing a lot for their basic right to education.
(Article written by Zeeba T. Hashmi. Picture Credit: Pakistan Today file photo)