Pakistanis care deeply about education. Rich or poor, educated or unlettered, city dweller or resident of a rural area, no Pakistani will tell you education does not matter. And yet, 67 years into our journey as an independent nation, nearly half of our children receive no education and the majority of those who are in school are not learning enough. How can this happen?
“It’s not that people don’t want education,” says Zehra Arshad, National Coordinator and Founder of the Pakistan Coalition for Education (PCE). “Everyone wants education. But most people don’t know how to articulate this demand, where to go to voice their concerns. They don’t know who is in charge or who has the authority to solve their problems.”
The PCE aims to bridge this gap between citizens and policy makers. “The greatest obstacle is that those who are affected the most by government policies are also the ones who have no way to communicate with those who make decisions,” Arshad explains.
The PCE is a coalition of non-governmental organisations, government and non-government stakeholders, and donors, working collectively to create a platform for advocacy. Its goal is to create political will for reform, leading to action, to ensure that every child in the country has access to education. Launched in 2005, the PCE undertakes research-based advocacy. It is not a service delivery organisation but rather a platform for networking and collaboration among its members and various stakeholders.
The PCE is the first organisation to initiate litigation for the implementation of Article 25-A, the right to free and compulsory education under the Constitution, filing cases in the high courts of Lahore, Peshawar and the Islamabad Capital Territory. “Once a bill is enacted, that is when the real work starts,” Arshad says. The PCE works in a number of ways, including by identifying key members of the government and monitoring their work. “We have to monitor institutions on how they are implementing the law. We have to make sure that those in charge of service delivery are communicating with communities and working according to their needs and requirements.”
Getting the government to act is one part of the challenge. Equally important is the job of creating and articulating the demand for education. Arshad believes there is a great divide between policy makers and those affected by these policies. “Decision makers are usually not easily accessible to their constituents and many times people don’t even know that there is someone who has been designated to oversee their issues. We try to get parents involved, students involved, teachers involved, so that we can form a collective voice and spread awareness.”
But the PCE’s work is not just about creating awareness. “We also help communities to take action. They need to know what their rights are and what they are entitled to.” To this end, the PCE organises People’s Assemblies at the provincial and district level, where parents, teachers, students, members of civil society, elected representatives and education officials meet to discuss issues and how to solve them. “This gives people a sense of ownership as well as a sense of empowerment, when they identify an issue and realise they can solve it. In Bahawalpur, for instance, we had district education officials sitting with the community, discussing legislation and pledging their commitment, and it was hugely successful.”
Prior to the 2013 general elections, the PCE was part of a ‘Vote for Education’ campaign. “As a result of this campaign we saw politicians talking about education in their campaigns and speeches,” Arshad recalls. “This gave us a boost, and the energy to say ‘yes we can do this’.”
The PCE also reaches out to audiences who are usually marginalised from the political discourse. Their weekly show on Radio Pakistan draws listeners from some of the country’s most far-flung areas. “We get calls from all parts of the country including rural Sindh, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and remote parts of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan,” says Arshad, adding that this is essential to help the PCE identify specific issues in different regions.
“We are not building schools or putting down anything concrete,” says Arshad. “We are trying to change behaviour and to create political will. Advocacy is a long-term effort. Nothing will happen overnight. But there is one thing I know: nothing will change unless citizens stand up and find a collective voice and the will to make change happen.”