Seven years on

December 19, 2021

Access to safe and secure schooling is the right of every Pakistani student

Seven years on

This December, it has been seven years since the horrific Army Public School, Peshawar, attack, the wound of which is a constant reminder of where the country stood in its war against terror. Before APS, attacks on schools had made lesser news, but education seemed a greater threat to the terrorist than those hunting them. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attacks reported more than 838 attacks on schools in Pakistan during 2009-2012, mostly in the northwest part of the country. Such attacks were an attempt by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan to demoralise students and teachers, especially girls.

In 2009 alone, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had reported that 505 schools had been damaged or destroyed in the Tribal Areas by the militants. Down south, the situation was no different. The Baloch Liberation Army and the Baloch United Front claimed attacks on teachers and institutions that failed to comply with the separatist narrative. The situation was so grave that even an open display of the Pakistani flag made one a target for the militants.

In 2012, when Malala and her fellow students were shot at, it became evident that not only schools but students also were a target. The Sardar Bahadur Khan University in Balochistan, an all-women university, was attacked by Lashkar-i-Jhangvi in 2013. Two years after the APS attack, Bacha Khan University became a target.

The APS incident did change the course of the country’s security deployment over the coming years. Operation Zarb-i-Azb intensified, and the following year, the National Action Plan was formulated to combat growing terrorism. In 2017, Operation Radd-ul- Fassad began. It has continued to date. While there has been an overall decline in terror attacks across Pakistan ever since, the country’s security remains a concern amid recent attacks by the TTP and other militant groups. Attacks on schools were reported by international watch groups even after the APS. In 2017-2019, GCPEA reported 50 incidents of attacks on schools. The report said that a majority of attacked schools were targetted by explosives.

In other incidents, teachers were a reported target. Internal threats aside, schools and students in sectors of Azad Jammu and Kashmir on the Line of Control have also come under Indian shelling. In the years following, the number of such attacks has gone down significantly. But watch groups are sceptical of the claims and say no official records of such incidents are kept nor reported by Education Departments.

But seven years after the APS incident, are our schools and students any safer? The attack remains one of the deadliest terror attacks in the country’s history and one that came as a lesson.

Fortifying academic institutions is not a long-term solution. The second lesson came as the need to have a national strategy and a narrative to counter and eradicate terrorism; this resulted in the drafting of the National Action Plan.

A quick lesson learned from the APS attack was that terrorists, who were now facing the wrath of the security forces, looked for soft targets that included health workers in polio eradication teams. Hence, marketplaces, academic institutions and professionals, and health workers became a target. On the radar, religious seminaries provided the militants a chance to cause human casualties and a religious divide. Educational institutions across the country were closed down for weeks after the APS attack and security guidelines were issued across the country. The HEC and provincial departments also provided security grants but there remain doubts whether those grants were fully utilised.

Fortifying academic institutions is not a long-term solution. The second lesson came as the need to have a national strategy and a narrative to counter and eradicate terrorism; this resulted in the drafting of the National Action Plan. The comprehensive security document expanded jurisdictions of both the civil and the military setup. Local police stations and private security firms became actively involved in keeping checks on institutions in most cities. Schools and colleges in smaller cities were also forced to raise their guard. While some points of the plan were executed, the rest still await follow through.

The civil administration politicised the NAP to the extent that it became irrelevant. Apart from becoming a topic of discussion and political point-scoring, the NAP was never fully implemented. For instance, in the wake of the unfortunate killing of a foreign national in Sialkot, the mention of NAP surfaced again.

Lastly, the national security environment remains prone to attacks, and given the record, the targets other than security personnel remain the vulnerable segments of the country. This means that the country cannot lower its guard. Maintaining safety and security first falls on the administration of academic institutions and then the local authorities. Despite this, an annual assessment of the security needs of the academic institutions should be mandated by the HEC and Education Departments to ensure that no security lapse like the APS occurs again. Madrassas too cannot be left out of the safety net.

The military and non-profit organisations have been rebuilding schools and colleges across Tribal Areas and Balochistan after clearing them of terrorists. The current and previous governments’ efforts encouraged have students to return to schools. But Pakistan must consider a Safe Schools Declaration. Along with the NAP, it can use the guidelines of the Safe Schools Declaration, making it a part of national policy for civil and academic institutions. Proper implementation of the NAP can prove most effective in tackling terrorism.

Pakistan needs safe schools for students. It also needs to address the issue of children still without access to education. Remembering the APS tragedy, the state must not bend before terrorists. It must carry out its duty to make education accessible to the masses.

The writer is an   independent media and foreign policy analyst. She tweets @MsAishaK

Seven years on