Meet Misbah. She is seventeen and has appeared for her Matriculation exam in May. She studied at the Garage School in Neelum Colony — a squatters’ settlement on the outskirts of the posh Defence Housing Authority in Karachi.
What is so special about Misbah? She is the first person in her family to have gone to school. That sounds astounding but the fact is that Pakistan still has children who are out of school. Twenty-three million, I am told. As for those who are in school, they have parents 80 per cent of whom are illiterate. That is the case with Misbah’s parents too. Her mother works as a domestic help in the houses of the rich. Her father runs a cycle repair shop. The school where I met Misbah is a private school for children from low-income families run on donations. She had first attended a government school but dropped out when she felt she was learning nothing.
Misbah is a symbol of change in a country whose rulers don’t want it to change — at least education-wise. That sounds bizarre but the fact is that even today our leaders’ mindset is the same as that of their predecessors seven decades ago. The general belief then was that education was the privilege of the few born with the entitlement to it. All and sundry had no claim to education. Hence, generation after generation remained mired in illiteracy. The rulers were happy ruling over a nation of unlettered people who naively lent themselves to blatant exploitation by the powerful. Additionally, the government did not have to “waste” money on schools and hospitals that were considered unproductive investments. Thus, the common man and woman were robbed of their birthrights.
Now the situation has changed somewhat. We have many Misbahs in our midst demanding education. They have dreams about their future and have also learnt about their right to education. They cannot be silenced any more. Gone are the days when the rulers could get away by repeating their patent line, “Parents do not want to send their children to school. What can we do.”
Many leaders would still like the state of illiteracy to continue in Pakistan but they are more discreet now. They disguise their exploitative propensities in empty promises which come to nought.
The world has also moved on and the globalisation of the 21st century and the accompanying communications revolution have exposed people to new ideas. Besides, the growth of technology has increased the demand for knowledge. Today outsiders are more concerned about our failure to educate our children. The massive amount of foreign aid being poured into the education sector is unparalleled in Pakistan’s history.
More than these factors is the emergence of a democratic system — howsoever flawed it may be — in Pakistan. The people now have a voice. I saw that at Hyderabad where I had been invited to a function to announce the launching of The Citizens’ Foundation’s schools in Thar. The Sindh education minister graced the occasion. Once the formal proceedings were over, the audience — quite a sizable one — pounced on the minister with a barrage of questions about schools not functioning, teachers being absent and so on. They were holding him accountable for all the ills of the system. I was a witness to a similar scene at a school event in Karachi where Nisar Khuhro, then the education minister, was taken to task. This was the first step people are taking to gain agency over their children’s education.
All political parties now include education in their manifestos. The voters now understand issues better. When I was discussing our elections with Misbah, she was very clear in her mind that only that candidate must be given votes who promises to improve the state of the education system. She is under-age and cannot vote in next month’s elections but her parents will. Misbah’s education means a lot for them. If it hadn’t, they would not have defied family traditions to send their daughter to school.
The voters’ misfortune is that very often they have no choice. One candidate is as inept and corrupt as the other. It is time the governments realised that they can no longer get away with their deceitful strategies of making glowing promises that mean nothing. People now refuse to accept the present state of affairs: inadequate number of schools many of which don’t function at all, teachers who cannot teach and their attendance is whimsical, obsolete textbooks that have not been revised, a tottering examination system in which cheating is rife and educational institutions without libraries and laboratories, not to speak of boundary walls, toilets, electricity and drinking water. The growing dependence on high-fee private schools is another challenge for the middle classes whose aspirations are higher.
Youth like Misbah have expectations. It would be dangerous to disappoint them. They have experienced the self-esteem and respect they earn through good education. Their new-found confidence has enabled them to hold their heads high. I have seen this transformation in young girls and boys. It is satisfying to see them gaining control over their lives, which is something they will not let go.
The writer is Dawn’s former Op-ed editor. She currently writes a fortnightly column on the social sectors. Her writings can be found at www.zubeidamustafa.com
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