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Sowing the seeds of change

Opinion

March 18, 2017

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It was an amazing afternoon. I stood next to the young girls of my province as they recounted their extraordinary stories of relentless struggles and shared their passion for knowledge despite the grave hurdles posed by poverty and severe financial constraints. I was again reminded of the class divide that characterises our country today as well as the cruelty this system has imposed on its people.

The level of criticism attracted by pro-poor welfare projects under the pretext of one shiny jargon or another smart explanation is ever growing. The line between the haves and have-nots could not be deeper. This thought never leaves me even for a second.

It is extremely unfortunate for a country, which came into existence on the principles of the equality of opportunity and growth for all of its citizens without any discrimination, to be held hostage by the so-called elites. Even worse is their willingness to go to any extent to protect their vested interests without realising the needs of their less privileged countrymen.

My interaction with these brilliant young girls has left me even more motivated in countering this narrative and ardent in furthering my resolve and agenda to nurture equality across my province. I am convinced that a system that allows 10 percent of the elite to ride a roughshod over the 90 percent of the population cannot sustain itself for long. Establishing an egalitarian society that takes care of its less fortunate lot is our noble goal.

If the doors of impending revolution have to be shut, then it is about time we abolish the culture of patronage, rent-seeking and injustice that is so rampant and deep-rooted in our country. The persistent feelings of deprivation among the poverty-stricken youth are a ticking bomb that can explode if well-to-do sections of our society fail to acknowledge that our youth need us and we are running out of time. If our elite support me in pouring a balm on the wounds of the people who have been exploited for so long, then we can hope to integrate them into the mainstream.

In doing so, nothing is a greater equaliser than an investment in education – and that too in the education of girls. Islam, our great religion, places utmost emphasis on education – especially the education of women. Wherever Islam ordains its followers to acquire knowledge, it does not discriminate between man and woman. It is evident from the Holy Quran and Hadiths that the acquisition of knowledge is obligatory for women in the same way as it is for men. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) was a great advocate of providing girls with education and training and making special arrangements in this regard.

As I sat down with hundreds of girl students in Aiwan-e-Iqbal Complex to launch the Khadim-e-Punjab Zevar-e-Taleem Programme and listened to their extraordinary stories, I could not help but wonder about the unparalleled talent that our youth is blessed with which, if tapped through the right incentives and enabling environment, can drive our country’s progress.

Zevar-e-Taleem is a game-changing initiative by virtue of its potential impact in improving the literacy rate among girls as well as lifting the socio-economic status of their households and families. The Punjab government will provide resources to the tune of Rs6 billion per annum for this purpose and 460,000 female students will benefit from this revolutionary initiative.

Under this programme – that provides stipends to girls at secondary school – the monthly stipend of Rs200 per student has been increased to Rs1,000 per student. This programme has been launched in 16 districts of Punjab that are lagging behind on the educational indicators for girl child education.

I can confidently say that the selection process of these students and the distribution of stipends are error-free. It is robustly developed through the integration of information technology tools, multiple data checks and is regularly synchronised with the school monitoring data. This process is fully transparent and completely based on merit.

The Zevar-e-Taleem programme seeks to increase the enrolment of female students and improve their retention rate through two necessary enablers: catering to the out-of-pocket expenses of girl students and providing better nutrition to these students. These are supported by empirical research and findings.

This programme will help us in move towards the actual fulfilment of the vision of our founding father. It will lay the foundation-stone of a society that is moderate, humane, economically prosperous and morally upright. In recent history, the creation of Pakistan over the short span of seven years is a living tribute to the highly important role and amazing struggle waged by our women to transform Iqbal’s dream into reality under the inspiring leadership of Quaid-e-Azam.

I firmly believe that if inspiring and brave women such as Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, Begum Shahnawaz, Salma Tassaduq Hussain and Begum Liaquat Ali Khan had not been in the forefront of freedom struggle, the dream of Pakistan would have remained a dream. My country has witnessed various women in the leading roles of legislators, doctors, jurists, preachers, educationists, ambassadors, businesswomen and entrepreneurs.

For our society to optimally unlock its potential and fulfil its purpose, girls and women must come forward. To make this possible, their brothers, husbands and fathers must support them, not as a matter of privilege but as a right. It is time that we rise above stereotypes and expose every person and ideology that opposes the education of girls and encourages miscreants to bombs girls schools. We have to stand guard over the pristine teachings of our great religion about the education of girls.

Investing in the education of girls at the primary and secondary level entails huge future dividends as women today constitute more than half of our country’s population. Investing in their empowerment involves investing in the well-being of our society.

Preparing them to take on the challenges of tomorrow and supporting them to play an effective role in the socio-economic development of our country is our collective responsibility. The Zevar-e-Taleem drive is a national movement. Empowerment through education provides the bulwark against terrorism, extremism, ignorance and under-development.

The seeds of a lasting change are being sown. Let us make sure that it grows into a fruit-bearing tree. The launch of a stipend programme to promote the education of girls is a significant step in this direction. Now we have to build on the initiative and expand its reach to enable more girls from the remaining districts to benefit from this venture.   

I would like to end this article with an African proverb: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

 

The writer is the chief minister of Punjab.

Facebook.com/shehbazsharif

Twitter: @CMShehbaz

 

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