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May 17, 2016

Let the girls learn


May 17, 2016

Shahbaz Shaheen’s daughter, Fatima, asked him: “Papa, where do I go to continue my education, as I have now passed my 5th grade examination?”. Shahbaz lives in the lush green Peshmal village near Kalam in Swat.

Erum and Humera asked their father, Mujahid Torwali: “We are not allowed to go to the school near our homes, because the school is only for boys. We want to study further but where?”. Mujahid is from the village, Kedam, near Bahrain in Swat.

Fatima’s father (Shahbaz) was speechless. All he could do was post his lament on social media with despair and anger. He addressed me in that post – thinking I am powerful enough to do something for the girls in the area and in his village, all of whom drop out of school. That someone like me, hailing from a marginalised community and a neglected area, can do nothing to move those in power was perhaps unknown to Shahbaz.

I know that this piece, like all those written earlier in these pages, will not have much impact. But I still waste your time, reader, so as to maybe ease my own pain.

The area beyond Bahrain, including the villages on both sides of the Swat River and the valleys of Kalam, Ushu and Utror – with a population of more than two hundred thousand – has no middle or high school for girls. This area stretches over a distance of more than 60 kilometres, with steep slopes to the villages in the hills. There are not enough primary schools for girls there, which is why all the schoolgirls have to opt out of education after passing grade 5.

Swat is where Malala hails from. The Nobel Laureate, who is in her teens now, stood up for her right to education, as she and others were forcibly stopped from going to school. Those open enemies of education are now gone and Malala has received international acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize for her stand, but thousands of girls her age are still deprived of their right to education in her hometown. Malala had to face the obvious enemies of education when she lived in Swat, but no one sees the concealed enemies of education, behind their file-folders and big tables.

We assumed that the sloganeers of ‘change’ could manage the affairs of the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and we took their promise seriously and hoped for the best. With a lot of hyperbole, the government started some initiatives to improve education and other sectors. For education, they came forward with a plan to use foreign assistance to regularly monitor education and improve its quality and effectiveness – a mechanism devised by the Independent Monitoring Unit.

In the first few months, teachers’ attendance improved at schools because of fear of punishment. But what is happening now under this programme is unfortunate. The concerned personnel, known as field monitors, are now in collusion with the teachers. They visit each school once a month. Prior to their visit, they let the absentee teachers know that they must be present on the day of the visit.

The monitors have learned these lessons from their higher-ups and from the reporting mechanism. For instance, more than two years back a monitor reported the prolonged absence of a middle school teacher when the said teacher had gone overseas for a better job. More than two years passed, and the teacher was removed just a few days back. The system has almost failed.

New schools, other than the few among the many flood-damaged ones, were constructed; this construction was mostly funded by foreign bilateral agencies. In the three-year period, the government could not add a single school to the hometowns of Fatima, Erum or Humera. Teachers’ attendance at the existing schools, including primary schools for girls, could not be ensured – despite the monitoring strategy.

The government often excuses itself from constructing new schools, on the pretext of a lack of funds. But, according to Syed Jafar Shah, an informed and experienced lawmaker of the KP Assembly, 30 percent of the allocated budget for education in the province was not utilised in the current fiscal year. He further stated that not a penny of the funds allocated for the flood and insurgency damaged schools was utilised in the current fiscal year, which ends by the end of this month.

It seems that the PTI-led government is unhappy with its votes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That is why it takes revenge of the people of KP and has focused on Punjab instead.

The alleged 30 percent of the education budget that was not utilised could be used to construct schools in areas like Swat-Kohistan, Dir-Kohistan, Indus-Kohistan and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

It doesn’t matter whether we admit it or not, but in a rigidly conservative patriarchal society like ours, women and girls are the most disadvantaged. This mindset is not particular to the masses. The governments, too, are apathetic towards the rights and plight of women and girls. As far as parents go, though the majority now approves of education for girls, they are still not very enthusiastic about their daughters’ education.

Things can change if the fathers and brothers of girls like Fatima, Erum and Humera stand up with them for their right to education, which is guaranteed by Article 25-A of Pakistan’s constitution.

The writer heads an independentorganisation dealing with education and development in Swat. Email: [email protected]


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