By: Zubair Torwali
“Papa, where do I go now to continue school as I am done with the fifth grade exams?” asked Fatima, a schoolgirl, of her father Shahbaz Shaheen, who lives in the lush green Peshmal village near Kalam in Swat.“We are not allowed to the school near our homes as that is only for boys. We want to study further, but where?” Erum and Humera asked Mujahid Torwali, who hails from the village, Kedam, near Bahrain in Swat.
Fatima’s father was rendered speechless before his daughter. All he could do was post his lament on social media with despair and anger. He addressed me in that post as he thought I was ‘powerful’ enough to do something for the girl-dropouts in the area and in his village. What an underdog like myself, hailing from a marginalised community and neglected area, could do in such a situation where all is controlled by a few men in the corridors of power was perhaps something that Shahbaz hadn’t thought about. I know this piece, like all its predecessors on these pages, will have little effect. But still I waste your time, dear reader, in an attempt to ease my own pain.
The area beyond Bahrain in Swat district, including the villages on both sides of the Swat River and the valleys of Kalam — Ushu and Utror — with a population of more than 200,000 has no middle or high school for girls. This area stretches over a distance of more than 60km, with steep slopes leading to the villages in the hills. There are a few primary schools for girls here and all the schoolgirls have to abandon their schooling after passing the fifth grade, not because of any other reason but for the lack of schools for them.
Swat is known the world over because of Malala Yousufzai. The teenaged Nobel laureate stood for her right to education as she and other girls in the area were forcibly stopped from going to schools. Those enemies of education are now gone, Malala has received international acclaim for her heroic struggle as well as a Nobel Peace Prize, but the fate of thousands of her age and gender mates is a bleak one as they are deprived of their right to education in Malala’s hometown. At the time, Malala faced the overt enemies of education. But no one now sees the concealed enemies of education sitting behind large desks.
With the assumption of control over the affairs of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) by the sloganeers of ‘change’, we made the mistake of taking their promises too seriously and hoped for the best. With loud hyperbole, the government began initiatives to improve education as well as other sectors. For education, it came forward with a plan that involved foreign assistance in monitoring education and improving its quality and effectiveness. A mechanism was devised for the purpose under the office of the Independent Monitoring Unit. In the initial few months, teachers’ attendance at schools improved out of fear of punishment. But what is happening now under this programme is not good. The personnel concerned, known as field monitors, have colluded with the teachers. They visit each school once a month and prior to their visit, let the teachers know that they must be present on the day of the visit. The monitors have learnt these tricks from their higher-ups, and from the flaws in the reporting mechanism. For instance, a monitor was reporting the continuous absence of a middle-school teacher for more than two years, when the said teacher had moved overseas for a better job. This was officially updated only a few days ago — two years after the teacher had stopped working. The system has clearly failed.
Apart from a few schools that were reconstructed after flood damage, some brand new schools were constructed under the funding of foreign bilateral agencies. But in a period of three years, the government could not add a single school in areas where Fatima, Erum and Humera live. Teachers’ attendance at existing schools, including the primary schools for girls, isn’t ensured despite the monitoring strategy. The government often excuses itself from constructing new schools on the pretext of a lack of funds, but according to Syed Jafar Shah, an informed and experienced lawmaker of the K-P Assembly, 30 per cent of the allocated budget for education in the province was not utilised in the current fiscal year. He further states that not a penny of the funds allocated for the flood- and insurgency-damaged schools were utilised in the current fiscal year that closes at the end of this month. It seems as if the PTI government is unhappy with getting votes in K-P and that is the reason why it is doing its best to neglect the province and is focusing all its energies on Punjab instead. The reported 30 per cent of the unutilised budget for education could have been used for the construction of schools in areas like Swat-Kohistan, Dir-Kohistan, Indus Kohistan and other parts of K-P.
In a rigidly conservative, patriarchal society like ours, women and girls are the most disadvantaged. The governments are apathetic towards their rights and plight. On the parental side, while the majority now approves of education for girls, many parents are still not all that enthusiastic about their daughters’ education. Things may change if the fathers and brothers of the Fatimas, Erums and Humeras come out on the streets to demand the right to education for the girl child under Article 25-A of the Constitution, as it seems that without such a protest, the K-P government will continue to ignore the plight of female students in remote parts of the province.