‘We don’t need no education’ by S.Iftkhar murshid

A month ago, as the darkness of the night gradually faded, hundreds of boys and girls in several counties of Britain stepped out of their homes. They walked for two hours in the near-freezing late autumn dawn before wending their way to school.

The purpose of their march was to demonstrate support for Malala Yousafzai who had been shot in the head a few days earlier for merely standing up for her right to a proper education. Seldom has a gesture, so majestic in its simplicity, been so overwhelming.

The Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics, George Bernard Shaw, once said: “What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.”

Had he been alive today, he would have had the satisfaction of knowing that in this microchip-dominated twenty-first century world, where merit is measured in terms of economic success, there are still voices like those of schoolgirls such as Malala that hunger for learning even at enormous personal risk.

Shaw, the only person ever to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938), at first refused the Nobel Prize because he had never sought public honours. But his wife prevailed upon him to reverse his decision because it was “a tribute to Ireland.” However he did not accept the money that went with the award, and requested that it be used instead for translating Swedish books into English.

Till his death in 1950, he believed that learning brought a person out of darkness through the gate of knowledge to the orbit of light. Only then could life become “a perpetual song in an articulate harmony of thought and form” as a former chief justice of the Dacca (Dhaka) High Court said in the 1960s.

The education that Malala so desperately sought is the birthright of every child, and it is the duty of the state to ensure that it is freely available. This is endorsed by the Constitution of Pakistan, and was further reinforced through the 18th Amendment which introduced Article 25A making it binding on the government to “provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such a manner as may be determined by law.”

A leading newspaper commented that education had “now become a right and no longer a privilege as it was previously. Article 25A sets up a possible scenario where a citizen can take the government to court for not providing them access, or even be the grounds for a suo motu action.”

But all laws are meaningless unless they are enforced. The ground reality in Pakistan is altogether different. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in league with its affiliates, has destroyed schools with a vengeance, but successive governments have completely demolished education.

Statistical data shows that Pakistan spent a miniscule 2.5 percent of its budget on education in 2005-2006, and, as if this was not bad enough, the current outlay hovers around a disgraceful 1.5 percent. A recent survey reveals that 30,000 schools are housed in shaky dilapidated buildings, thereby endangering thousands of children. No less appalling is the finding that 21,000 educational institutions do not even have a building and an estimated 32,000 are “ghost schools” that only exist on paper, but receive government funding.

Education has never been a priority with the government which prefers to spend more on bailing out inefficient and corrupt state-owned enterprises such as the PIA, Pakistan Steel, P and Pakistan Railways, than on educating the country’s youth. Resource constraints can certainly not be advanced as an excuse for this criminal neglect because there are 26 countries poorer than Pakistan that have more children in school.

The country also has the dubious distinction of having the second largest out-of-school population (5.1 million children according to the Unesco) in the world after Nigeria. But on Tuesday, during the debate on the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Bill 2012, which was unanimously passed by the National Assembly, the PPP lawmaker, Shahnaz Wazir Ali, was honest enough to concede that the actual number of out-of-school children had increased to 7.2 million.

Even more disconcerting is the “State of Pakistan’s Children Report 2011” released in September this year by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child. The study claims that almost 25 million children are out of school, while seven million have never received any form of primary education.

The Education for All Global Monitoring Report recently released by the Unesco shows that Pakistan ranks among the bottom ten countries of the world when it comes to female education. The authors of this comprehensive survey lay bear the truth that “62 percent of girls in Pakistan, between the ages of seven and 15, have never seen the inside of a school.”

Despite these incontrovertible facts, the leadership in Pakistan does not tire of regurgitating half-truths which are then touted as formidable achievements. Last week the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) chief minister bragged that in the last four years the provincial government had established 72 colleges out of which 52 were for girls. He also said that a scheme had been launched to provide scholarships for girls at the primary level and Rs400 million had been earmarked for disbursement among parents who enrol their girls in school.

However, the statics compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal on the destruction of schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) for the four-year period from 2009 till September 30, 2012 tell a different story altogether. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone 184 schools were blown up by the TTP in 171 terrorist incidents. The tally for Fata in the same period shows that 155 schools were destroyed, as a result of 175 bombings. The total number of schools razed to the ground in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata since 2009 stands at 339.

But where there is a will there is always a way and this is borne out by Afghanistan’s experience. In 2001, when the country was still under the Taliban’s control, there were barely a million children in school of which only 5,000 were girls. But currently an impressive nine million students are enrolled and 40 percent of these are girls. In an article on Malala Yousafzai carried by the Huffington Post, Sarah Fane, who was recently in Afghanistan, made the stunning disclosure that in the Kunar province adjacent to Fata, the expectation was that 16,000 children would enrol in this school-year but the actual number was 34,000 and 46 percent were females. The pattern was the same in neighbouring Khost.

Afghanistan’s Education Minister Ghulam Farooq Wardak has claimed that his country is on course to achieve universal primary education by 2015 as envisaged in the UN’s Millennium Development Goal 2 (MDG). Similarly, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are all set to reach the MDG target. India’s school enrolment rate is ten times that of Pakistan, and Bangladesh’s is twice as much.

A hundred million Pakistanis, or 65 percent of the population, are below the age of 25, while 32 percent in the 15 to 29 age bracket are illiterate. Furthermore the workforce is growing at the rate of three percent per annum, which means that all the ingredients for a demographic disaster of Pakistan’s own making are in place. The only remedy is education.

Experts are of the opinion that the situation could improve within two years, if an additional Rs100 billion is injected into the education sector. But as things stand it seems that the government believes more in the catchy Pink Floyd refrain, “We don’t need no education.”

The country’s leadership should heed the warning of Aristotle: “All those who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”

The writer is the publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@ gmail.com


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