Will Pakistan’s Prime Minister let Malala down?

On 9 December, the world once again turned its eyes to Malala Yousafzai as she received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. But one of her most prominent countrymen failed to appear as politicians, celebrities and UN representatives celebrated the young prize laureate. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawas Sharif did not come to Oslo. He promised, however, according to Pakistani Radio, to realize Malala’s vision of safe and sound educational facilities for every Pakistani child. If he intends to keep his promise, he has a heavy workload ahead.

Currently, 58 million children worldwide do not get the chance to attend school. 6 million of these children live in Pakistan. Whilst neighbouring countries like India and Bangladesh have succeeded in reducing illiteracy rates and the number of children not attending school, Pakistan still has mindboggling illiteracy rates. Out of a population of 181 million people, about 90 million remain illiterate.

Four years ago, the Pakistan National Assembly made free and compulsory education a constitutional right for all children between 5 to 16 years. Unfortunately, the changes in the constitution have not been followed up by changes in public spending on education, neither in federal nor provincial budgets. Pakistani governments have consistently neglected investment in the public education sector.  Allocations have wavered between 2 – 2.3 per cent. Official numbers from the Pakistan Economic Survey show that federal spending on education declined with 11 percent from 2013-2014 even though Nawaz Sharif promised to raise allocations to education to 4 percent when he was elected in 2013.

Malala’s home province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) is led by the Pakistan Justice party Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and its coalition partners Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and Jamiat-Ulema Islam Fazl (JUI-F). They promised to double investment in the education sector when they came to power in 2013. A survey of the public schools in the KPK province in 2011 showed that 81 per cent lacked electricity, 10 per cent had no access to drinkable water or hygienic latrines and 70 per cent were without the security of boundary walls. Last month, a debate about education was on top of the agenda in the province. But the discussions were not about security, derelict school buildings or how to recruit more teachers. Instead, the Minister of education, Atif Khan, announced that verses from the Koran about Jihad (holy war), removed during the former government headed by Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP) would be reintroduced. He also declared that textbooks depicting girls with skirts and without veils would be removed from public schools curriculum closing with the announcement “We live in an Islamic society, women don’t wear skirts here.”

30 percent of Pakistani children ages 6-10 who attend school are enrolled in private schools. The prevalence of private schools de facto dilutes the constitutional guarantee of education for all.  Military operations and terrorist attacks adds to the disruption of children’s education in Pakistan. The recent attack in Peshawar where 132 children and 9 adults were killed reminds me of the words of Bilqees, one of the mothers interviewed during studies in Pakistan; “Every time my children walk out the door, I wonder if they will come back alive or not”. She voices the concerns many Pakistani parents face every day as they send their children to school. The Pakistani government recently had to admit that the Millennium Development Goal of universal education for all by 2015 is out of reach.

More than two years after Malala left Pakistan she is still under attack – this time from  professional educators in the Pakistan Private Schools Federation who have prohibited the reading and display of the biography I am Malala in their schools and libraries.  The strict gender- segregation no doubt hampers girls’ enrolment and completion of school, but if we look beyond the simplifying dichotomy between modern vs. traditional; the documentation of the material conditions of government schools in Malala’s home province, put a glaring light on the material barriers to school attendance.