By Ambreen Agha
Once again the long-pending and much hyped Pakistan education reforms are doing rounds in the media with the hope of final implementation. On March 25, 2011, the World Bank approved a USD 400 million assistance package to help Pakistan improve the access, quality and relevance of education at every level. According to the Bank, the project is designed to improve conditions for teaching, learning and research for enhanced access. The project will aim at quality and relevance at the tertiary level across the country, while continuing to increase enrolment rates and reduce gender and rural-urban disparities in primary education in Punjab and Sindh Provinces.
Rachid Benmessaoud, the World Bank Country Director, noted that Pakistan’s transition to a middle-income country in the global knowledge economy of the 21st century will depend critically on its intellectual and human capital. It was necessary for Pakistan to upscale its entire education system so that it can produce skilled, innovative and enterprising graduates, as well as improve research and innovation capacity to promote dynamic economic development.
In addition to World Bank aid, a number of other agencies, including NGOs, are supporting individual educational projects in Pakistan, many of them with a focus on the education of girls.
Pakistan’s education sector has of course, suffered due to the lack of resources, but the lack of political will and acute religious extremism, with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) blowing up primary Government schools, have been far more significant factors. Pakistan’s crisis of primary education is worsened by the TTP’s coercive recruitment of children as live bombs.
In one glaring incident, on January 26, 2011, a 13 year old boy announced, “I have come”, before blowing himself up at a security picket at the Urdu Intersection in Lahore, Punjab, killing 10 people, including a woman and three Policemen, and injuring 85. A Washington Times report noted that there was a big price tag on child bombers, ranging from USD 7,000 to USD 14,000. A CNN report added that Pakistan’s South Waziristan Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a TTP stronghold, is used for training suicide bombers between the ages of 12 and 18.
On March 28, Police arrested a seminary student, Wahab, for his alleged involvement in the bomb blast in the Hashtnagri area of Peshawar, the Provincial Capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (PK), which left 18 persons injured on March 25. On the same day, unidentified militants blew up a primary school for girls and a high school for boys in Jawaki area of Frontier Region (FR) Kohat in FATA.
This is the present educational landscape of Pakistan, where children are both instruments and victims of TTP terrorism. Concerns rise further because of the growing number of madrasas (seminaries) that breed sectarianism and hatred for other communities. Zahid Hussein, an expert on militant Islam in Pakistan argues that madrasas need to go beyond updating their curricula, since this is not going to undercut radicalisation unless there is a change in the environment of the madrasas which create and nurture extremism.
On February 26, Pakistani media published the ‘Education Manifestos’ of various political parties. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) called for improvements in quality and standard of education in the country, while the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP) outlined broad strategies to secure similar objectives. The pro-Taliban Jama’at–e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), which runs large number of madrasas in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and is led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, differed from the others, supporting an ‘Islamic’ system of education. JUI-F’s clear agenda is to throttle the reforms. This religious political party has raised an alarm over the ‘dubious’ restructuring of the education system and has sought to strengthen radical forces to further their Islamisation programme. Lack of unanimity on education monitoring and reform Pakistan has created an ‘education emergency’, where there is much talk and no action. Former President General Ziaul-Haq’s disciples still dominate educational policy, making religion an ideological instrument in all spheres of life.
On March 8, 2011, the launch of the March for Education campaign was organised, and a booklet giving a grim picture of the Education Emergency in Pakistan, was released. The booklet noted that one in ten children in Pakistan is out of school, equivalent to the population of Lahore, placing the country second in the global ranking of out-of-school kids. The report says that seven million children in the country are not in primary school, while three million will never see the inside of a classroom. The speakers at the launch lamented the current rate of progress. Shahnaz Wazir Ali, the ruling PPP legislator said, “The Government’s commitment has been articulated but it did not translate into action on ground.”
The presentation showed children in classrooms that resembled sheds and noted that 35 per cent of schools in Sindh have no building or are in a dangerous condition. Nationwide, over 21,000 schools had no building, while only 39 per cent had electricity. Across Pakistan, just 36 per cent of public schools are said to be in ‘satisfactory’ condition. The report also highlighted fewer educational opportunities for girls in the country and observed that, at the current rate, Punjab would only be able to provide all children with their constitutional right to education by 2041, while Balochistan would reach this goal by 2100. One of the speakers at the launch declared, “It is absolutely unacceptable what is happening to children in Pakistan. The responsibility falls on this Government, successive Governments and the people.” The speakers called for political will to sustain a programme of education reform, and an increase in education expenditure to four per cent of the GDP (USD174,800 million). Pakistan spent 2.5 per cent of its budget on schooling in 2005/2006 . It now spends just 1.5 per cent.
The report supports the declaration of 2011 as the ‘year of education’ by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, demanding that the year be used to turn around the situation and head off the “impending disaster”.
The school curriculum in Pakistan has long been condemned as being exclusionary, ideologically motivated, and stereotypical, with obsolete content and biased viewpoints. The Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission, which was constituted by the Pakistan Government under then Chief Justice of Pakistan Supreme Court Hamood-ur-Rehman to investigate the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, noted that the 1971 war saw thousands killed, leaving permanent scars on millions of people in Bangladesh who witnessed torture and death of their countrymen at the hands of the Pakistan Army. Instead of the findings of the report, all that the new generation of Pakistan knows about the war comes from the state curriculum. Instead of setting record straight on the creation of Bangladesh and the real reasons for the separation, students in Pakistan are taught conspiracy theories and factually incorrect versions of history. Nowhere in textbooks is there a mention of the documented atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army, which include mass rape, targeted killings and genocide. The textbooks also fail to mention the number of civilian deaths in East Pakistan in the period leading up to the creation of Bangladesh. Nor do they mention Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s inflexible stand on sharing power with Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Awami League.
Misconceived textbooks indoctrinate the new generation with concocted stories and a distorted history, leaving little space for the de-radicalisation of Pakistani society. Islamabad’s biased course content is bound to produce a violent and intolerant generation.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management