“securing education” or “students to soldiers II”

Piece published in Dawn on 22 June, 2015 as Cost of ‘security.’

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Photo: AP/Muhammed Muheisen

Photo: AP/Muhammed Muheisen

A troubling question has floated to the surface in Pakistan, and is fast growing in salience: What price should parents be willing to pay to educate their children?

Before Article 25A made the provision of basic schooling a state responsibility, the cost of school was a barrier to entry. Books and uniforms aside, one hidden cost for many families was loss of income when a bread-earning child chose school over work. For girls, particularly in rural areas, “parents did not allow” was a major reason for dropping out, as cited in the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM) survey. This meant that for many parents, sending their girls to school was a decision for which they paid the price of ideas and traditions that had guided their actions for years.

Alif Ailaan Dropout Infographic

Alif Ailaan Dropout Infographic

On June 11, 2015, while cleaning a loaded gun at the private Sangota Model School in Mingora, Swat, a teacher accidentally shot a fifth grader. The student died on the spot.

What more can be said? In his mind and his community, the teacher will inevitably be vilified. There can be no solace for the parents of a twelve year old who went to school, never to come back. They paid the ultimate price, and for them there can be no recompense.

While he must shoulder his part of the responsibility, this teacher was an individual, part of a much larger policy landscape that facilitated his behavior. The permission for teachers to carry arms in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was meant to deter terrorist attack, or to empower staff to protect students in the “ten to fifteen minutes” before police could respond. As a safeguard, teachers were not supposed to openly display their weapons and only licensed weapons were allowed. However, the fact remains that weapons were to be allowed on campus, open for potential use or abuse.

Much has been said about the wisdom of such measures, and whether or not they represent good practice. The Peshawar tragedy has left a lasting imprint on national memory, and the school, as an institution, has become associated with fear like never before. Teachers themselves have been divided in their opinions, torn between fear and the knowledge that theirs was a gentler role. In the wake of this recent, painfully avoidable tragedy, it is worthwhile to pause and consider the direction in which we are heading.

In the bigger picture, Pakistan still has the second highest number of out of school children in the world. Looking at Alif Ailaan data on Swat in particular, it has recently fallen in the District Education Rankings due to lower scores on educational achievement and gender parity. This means that fewer girls are going to school, and children are not able to do well in basic reading and math. Education in Swat is therefore being threatened in multiple ways – without the added risk of weapons in the classroom.

It is time for the government to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of both development and security policies, not for knee-jerk reactions that could pull the country into a darker age. It will take much more than a clampdown on international charities to restore trust in security and police forces. Immediate challenges at the federal and provincial levels include building the capacity of police to offer protection, particularly in the vicinity of schools. There is work to be done on identifying areas of vulnerability, and recording both attacks as well as threats of attack on schools. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be to ensure that Safe Schools and quality education efforts are structured well – and that one does not come at the cost of the other. Already, a worrying trend indicates that instead of separate allocations, funds are to be diverted from quality to security measures.

Beyond the government, it is also up to the people of Pakistan to reassess priorities in securing education for their children. Ultimately, they are the ones who will give in to or promote the militarization – and therefore, the politicization – of the school as an institution. Unless communities rally together to promote the idea of Schools as Zones of Peace, it simply will not work. To restore the identity and the image of the school will take a concerted effort by the media as well as the general public.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, they say, and Pakistan is a country at war. The reaction of the nation has been to encourage the idea of “students as soldiers.” There is less emphasis on the fact that this alternate jihad is actually one that is aiming to promote good citizenship, and the development of talents that children can offer to the world. To pick up the idea of school, dust off the rhetoric of fear and see its inherent pricelessness – that is the challenge of our times.

Photo: REUTERS/Khuram Parvez

Photo: REUTERS/Khuram Parvez

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