By Zeeshan Salahuddin
With 25 million out-of-school children, this crisis hides in plain sight
There is a small group of children, little girls, not younger than four, not older than nine that hassle drivers at the various stop signs in and around the F11 Markaz in Islamabad. Two weeks ago, one of these children approached me, and offered to sell me a half-inflated balloon, a torn book, and strings of jasmine flowers. I dug into my wallet, and gave the girl, this beautiful child with blond hair and striking blue eyes with a smile that could melt your heart, a ten rupee note. She asked which of the items I would like to have, and I declined all three, telling her I didn’t really want anything. She insisted that I take the balloon, and then reached inside the car, and placed it on the dashboard, next to the steering wheel.
She said it looked pretty, smiled this toothy, sweet smile that spread from ear to ear and reduced her eyes to chinks, radiating an innocence that only children of that age seem genuinely capable of. And then she pranced off, offering the tattered book and the strings of jasmine flowers to other potential patrons. I don’t know her name, I don’t know her age, though she could not be more than five years old. However, I am acutely aware of the inherent irony in watching a child sell a book, when she does not know how to read, will likely never see the inside of a classroom, and will likely never be educated enough to find her way off of the beggars’ slums.
According to the District Ranking Report, recently launched by think tank Alif Ailaan, she is one of 25 million children that are out of school between the ages of 5 and 16. Less than half of Pakistani children never complete a primary education, and as such, when they enter the workforce, they cannot read or write properly. Nearly 75% of Pakistani children lack basic mathematical skills. World Bank statistics indicate that while neighboring countries spend a considerable percentage of their GDP on basic education, for example India, which spends over 4%, China which spends nearly 4%, and even Nepal, which spends close to 5%, Pakistan spends about half that amount. Despite an increase in the percentage of the federal budget allocated to education, it seems Pakistan has a very lackadaisical attitude when it comes to educating its youth.
This is not a small problem; it is compounded by a plethora of issues with a wide range of origins. Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan lack infrastructure and basic school needs such as clean washroom facilities, running water and proper boundary walls. Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and FATA suffer from security issues, and a coordinated campaign against female education and advancement. Even Sindh does not rank particularly high in basic needs, such as electricity, when aggregated across the entire province. In Punjab, the survival rates (indicated by a child continuing their education, and advancing to a minimum of 5th grade), is the third worst in the country. There are competing bureaucratic showdowns. There are local political allegiances, personal goals, and business interests. There are champions of local governments who see districts as the most vital and most atomic level of governance (above management of individuals schools), while those who believe in the devolution of federal powers at the provincial level make the case for consolidated and concentrated powers at the molecular provincial level.
Irrespective of which way the dust settles, one thing is for sure. Pakistan has an education crisis like none other. Enveloped within this larger issue are the sub-crises that rear their ugly heads with unchecked abandon. There is a distinct lack of spotlight on primary education as the most critical focus of federal, provincial and district education budgets. As a result, locations traditionally and historically ignored and underrepresented show the lowest survival rates, with FATA at 11.60 and Balochistan at 15.60. The survival score peaks in the country at 73.20 in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. There is no holistic, centralized (or decentralized) effort to help improve female education in the country. UNESCO figures indicate that three-quarters of girls in Pakistan are not in school, whereas two-thirds of the out of school children happen to be females. In places like Swat, despite over 700 schools destroyed by extremist elements in the last seven years, no coordinated effort has been implemented for their reconstruction.
For the new government led by the Nawaz Sharif, and dominated by the Pakistan Muslim League (N), the initial focus has been largely hijacked by the security situation in the country, drone strikes, the latest on June 7th, which killed eight, allegedly including Taliban commander Bahadur Khan, the looming energy crisis, and within the budget, the tax and GST hikes. Consider this: since the first drone strike on June 17, 2004, there have been an estimated 3,129 deaths attributed to drones. The civilian loss of life is tragic, deplorable and the number of affected families number in the thousands. But then consider the fact that 25,000,000 (25 million) Pakistani children, and not in schools, and the prior figures pales in comparison, its gravity notwithstanding.
With half of the country’s population under the age of 22, this is no longer a crisis; it is a disaster of catastrophic proportions. These children, at the risk of sounding clichéd, are the future of Pakistan, and with half of our children never completing primary education, there is a clear, present and pronounced need for major educational reforms and focus in the country, most notably at the district levels. While independent think tanks like Alif Ailaan and I-SAPS continue to fight for the rights of children’s education in Pakistan, the push needs to come from the public representatives in both the national and provincial assemblies and the senate. We, as members of their respective constituencies, have a national obligation to flag the severity of this issue with our elected representatives.
There is no magic wand, no mystical spell, and no mysterious force that can bring about widespread change overnight. It is an uphill battle, fraught with corruption, inefficient resource allocation and management, and miles of bureaucratic red tape. But it has to start somewhere, and it must start now.
The writer is the Executive Producer for Planning and Research at Capital TV. He can be reached at @zeesalahuddin on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Pakistan Today on 22 June, 2013