STORY 15 - 27 FEBRUARY 2014 - RURAL SUPPORT PROGRAMMES NETWORK: STRENGTHENING THE VOICE OF COMMUNITIES

There are many reasons why 25 million children in Pakistan are out of school. From difficulties of access and poor learning outcomes to social pressures and extreme poverty, many of the factors that have led to the education emergency require long-term structural reform. But sometimes the answer is as simple as helping communities know their rights and enabling them to hold government officials to account.

Since 2010, when the Constitution (Eighteenth Amendment) Act was passed, every child in Pakistan between the ages of 5 and 16 is guaranteed education free of cost. This fundamental right, enshrined in Article 25-A of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, puts the onus on the state to make sure that every child is in school. Yet few Pakistani parents know of its existence.

“Most people in rural areas do not know that free and compulsory education is the fundamental right of their children,” says Nasreen Sheikh, Education Campaign Manager for the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN). As a result, parents feel powerless in the face of official apathy and neglect when it comes to schools in their villages and the standard of education on offer.

RSPN is a strategic platform for rural support programmes operating across Pakistan, building capacity and assisting with policy advocacy and donor linkages. The network covers 110 districts in all four provinces as well as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, with a collective reach of 4.8 million rural households. In April 2013, RSPN partnered with Alif Ailaan to launch a campaign in 56 union councils in 7 districts: Dera Ghazi Khan, Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur and Rajanpur in the Punjab; and Haripur, Mansehra and Swabi in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The purpose of the project was to mobilise rural communities to demand implementation of Article 25-A and to create a system of local-level accountability in education.

The challenge for the project was to create awareness about Article 25-A and enable parents to act on their own to improve the delivery of education locally. By holding community meetings, and organising walks and rallies, they spread the word about the right to education. “It is important to know your rights but that is not enough,” says Sheikh. “Parents don’t know who to approach if there is a problem with the local school.”

The next step was to build a system through which parents could address problems with local schools and hold education officials accountable. To this end, RSPN first made sure that schools in the target union councils had functioning school management committees, consisting of the head teacher and seven members of the community. From among the parents, two or three were selected in each union council to be part of a Parents Ittehad (parents’ union), whose job it is to represent the union council and speak on behalf of the community on education-related issues. Finally, at the district level, RSPN helped to set up a District Education Network made up of local support organisations and civil society organisations. The network holds regular meetings at the district level to relay education-related issues to government officials. “People now know which departments to go to for accountability and how to get the word to their local politicians,” says Sheikh. “Executive District Officers, teachers and officials from the education department know that everyone is watching and monitoring so they have to deliver services.”

While the education emergency in Pakistan is real, there are many myths about education that need to be dispelled. One of these is the idea that ordinary Pakistanis don’t care about education. “The demand for education exists,” says Sheikh. “In many cases it is simply a matter of creating the right systems.” RSPN’s work is itself the best evidence in support of this assertion. In the 56 union councils covered by the project, a baseline survey revealed there were 51,000 children out of school before the project was launched. By the time the project concluded, more that 18,000 children—or 35 per cent—were enrolled.

“The problems that people face are simple,” Sheikh explains. “If a 5-year-old child has to walk 5 kilometres to school every day, then no parent is going to put their child in that position. The law states that education should be free but no one has defined that properly.” In fact in many cases education is not free of cost even if a school charges no fees. Parents are still required to pay for books, bags, stationery and transport, expenses that poor rural households are often unable to meet.

Similarly, once a child is enrolled, the problem is to make sure they don’t drop out. “If a school has 250 students, just one teacher and no basic facilities, the quality of education will suffer and children won’t stay in school,” Sheikh says. “The bodies we have set up will help to ensure that the community is monitoring the situation even if the government is not.” Already, teacher absenteeism has been curbed as a result of parental involvement in school management. “Now it is a matter of sustaining these gains.”

Through its education campaign, RSPN has made a tangible difference in the lives of thousands of families. Parents in the target districts have started to take ownership of the issues, armed with knowledge about their rights and supported by an institutional system of local accountability. The RSPN example proves, first and foremost, that even the poorest communities in Pakistan care deeply about education. What it demonstrates is that, with a little support, ordinary people can hold their local officials to account and make positive change happen.

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