“The fight for our children’s right to education is our Jihad” – school girls at risk in Pakistan

The attempted killing of Malala Yousufzai on her way home from school last October is a graphic illustration of the terror thousands of girls and female teacher in the north-western region of Pakistan have to face to attend class. The attempted target killing of Malala is an extreme case but more than half a million children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remain out of school because of the on-going fight between the Pakistan military forces and the Therik-e Taliban Pakistan TTP – an illustration of the scale of everyday threats against school girls that embodies how girls’ education has become (literally) a struggle for life in Pakistan these days.

Sumaila[1] the head teacher in one of the girls’ schools bombed by TTP told us they spread  posters saying all government girls’ schools [must close] because “their teaching is against Islam” …they “inculcate Western values”… “girls do not need school education, where they learn English language, the girls should join Madrassa.”

 “The first thing I did was to contact the provincial educational authorities who assured me that the school building will be reconstructed in the shortest possible time. Sumaila continued her narrative.  “But I told them I am worried that the children will lose out while waiting for reconstruction — and finally the authorities allowed me to hire a private building in the village to teach the girls.  

Some of the parents withdrew their children from the schools— because of the threat, so we (the teachers) had to work hard to convince them to send their daughters to school.

 My next challenge was to eliminate the fear of the Taleban in the hearts of the small girls.

Then the military operation against Taliban in nearby Darra Adam Khel started… the helicopters used to hover over our school… the loud explosions terrorised the girls … many of them were crying…and the girls talked about how the Taleban might kill them or their parents because they had returned to school…we (the teachers) had to do a lot of counselling to assure them that life and death is in God’s hand…Taleban are not more powerful than God, and education is your right!”  

Approximately 770 primary schools have been destroyed between 2008-2012 by Taliban terrorist attacks and some by aerial bombardment by the Pakistani air force. Both the army and the Taliban have occupied schools and converted them in their operational bases. In addition to  destructions of physical space for schooling, the war on education is specifically targeted on so-called western education. TTP  argue that the curriculum in government schools is against Islam and that subjects like Islamiat do not interpret the Quran correctly.

In an interview in July 2012, a planning officer at the Elementary Education Department in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said that the reconstruction of the primary schools destroyed is an immediate challenge. It requires the provincial authorities to step up and provide education for the children that have been forced out of school by the ongoing war between the Pakistan Taliban and the Government forces. The damage done to girls education by the Taliban and the army is seen everywhere in the north-west of Pakistan. An atmosphere of fear prevails in the vicinity of the destroyed schools. Children are traumatized and parents are fearful to send them to schools.

Still teachers, parents and children are determined to continue the education and demand the government to restore writ of state. Locals have demanded that the government reconstruct the destroyed schools and provide security for the schools’ staff, students and buildings.  As a result, educational authorities have been forced to restore classes in  rented buildings. These make-shift schools have managed to give a sense of normalcy, but some lack even basic educational facilities, like desks, chairs, tables and black boards.  Moreover, the teachers have no training in counseling the students affected by the pervasive violence in the region. All this affects the quality of education.

Parents, children and teachers continue to seek education despite the Taliban threats . They see it fit to use the words of  one of the parents “ The fight for our children’s right to education is our Jihad”.

In the wake of the attack on Malala, Pakistani authorities promised to increase security and support girls education. During the recent elections, parties made commitments to education, including a promise of doubled spending on basic schooling.

But it is the school girls and the teachers themselves who are in the vanguard; brave individuals like Malala, and thousands of other school girls in Pakistan.

UNESCO honour Malala by launching a new petition for universal education on July 12,  her 16th birthday. The petition calls on world leaders to ensure that 57 million out-of-school children, the majority of them girls, are given the chance to pursue education by December 2015, the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals.

The Pakistani government has also chosen July 12  to call an all party conference to deliberate on an national policy for peace talks with TTP  –  The international  community should keep watch : Any peace deals with TTP that omits explicit guarantees on girls’ right to education will fail to achieve sustainable peace.

This blog is based on interviews and ongoing communication with teachers and parents in communities where we conducted fieldwork (2010, 2011 and 2012).

[1] All names are pseudonyms