There is a persistent gap in literacy rates that threatens to limit opportunities for marginalised sections
The segregated data on literacy and education shows that the country’s religious minorities are not enjoying the fruits of the state’s commitment to all citizens’ right to basic education and the policies of successive governments in pursuit of this objective. The 5th population census, for instance, showed that while overall literacy rate in 1998 stood at 45 percent, literacy rate among Christians was 34 percent, Jati (caste) Hindus about 19 percent, scheduled castes 17 percent and others (Buddhists, Sikhs, etc) 23 percent. Those belonging to the religious minorities, thus, were nearly half as likely to be literate as an average citizen.
The results of 6th Census, taken in 2017, have been disputed by several stakeholders and are, therefore, not helpful for a comparative analysis.
A survey taken this year by the Punjab Bureau of Statistics on the “social and economic well-being of women” has shown that higher than average illiteracy (64 percent compared to 36 percent) has persisted among minority women in the province. While about 36 percent of general populace is illiterate, only about 36 percent of the women in minority communities in the Punjab are literate. Previous data trends had shown the Punjab to be leading in literacy attainment in the country. It is therefore feared that attainment of literacy among minority women in other provinces and territories may be still worse.
The persistent gap in literacy rates reflects the socio-economic marginalisation and a lack of opportunities for the marginalised sections. It is also a challenge confronting policy makers because higher than average illiteracy among specific groups tends to persist for generations, making the achievement of desired levels of literacy hard to attain. The dream of “inclusive and quality education” under the Sustainable Development Goal 4 by 2030 appears difficult to achieve.
Besides the issues of affordability, children from minority communities face certain specific barriers to attaining education. These include discrimination in school environment and textbook content seen as contributing to challenges like out of school children, dropouts and low learning outcomes. Even focused intervention aiming at inclusion – like a 2 percent quota for admissions in higher education – fail the test of implementation.
The Single National Curriculum (SNC) introduced by the previous government has maintained religious content in the textbooks introduced during 2020-2022. The textbooks for social studies and languages contain material based on dogmas and practices of the majority religion in 20-40 percent of lessons. After parents and educationists raised objections to the content, the government has issued a direction carried in the textbooks that “non-Muslim students may not be forced to study these parts.”
Practically speaking, students from minority communities cannot refuse lessons based on Islam in a compulsory subject as this can impact their grades in the examinations and might impact their safety and social acceptance.
Besides making education discriminatory in terms of religious instruction and increasing the potential for religious conflicts, the scheme offered by the SNC adds to the problems of learning losses and increasing learning poverty for students belonging to minority faiths.
The Supreme Court asked for a report last year from the Ministry of Education and Professional Training on whether the SNC complies with Article 22 (1) of the constitution which commands that “No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or take part in any religious ceremony, or attend religious worship, if such instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own.” Some officials of the National Curriculum Council tried to mislead the Supreme Court in the May 10 hearing by stating that the SNC is compliant with the requirements of the constitution. In the end, the bench was obliged to order a meeting among stakeholders to reach an understanding of the intention and interpretation of the constitution in this regard.
Among the religious minorities, Christians have shown better literacy rates than other groups. This is owing to schools that were historically run by churches’ missions and often praised for their role in providing quality education. Some of these schools suffered immense losses under the nationalisation policy of 1972 and the Islamisation drive in the later years. Even though a denationalisation policy was introduced in the 1980s, only about half of the nationalised schools have been returned to their rightful owners. Many of these schools have lost much of their glory and character.
The Centre for Social Justice recently carried out a survey of 43 Christian-run schools in eight districts of the Punjab. It showed that Christian students were about 12 percent behind their Muslim classmates in attaining educational levels. Many of the schools were in dire need of improvements in infrastructure, administration and trained and adequately-paid teachers. None of the hundreds of Christian-run schools is among the beneficiaries of the Punjab Education Foundation, which provides funding to schools in need.
Children and citizens of Pakistan should not have to live under education policies that establish and sustain discrimination on account of religious differences. The discrimination is visible in policy measures as well as outcomes. An inclusive democracy and cohesive social order can only be achieved by removing all discriminatory measures from the education policy.
The writer is a researcher,freelance journalist and a human rights activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org