As I write this, I am reminded of the conversation I had with the renowned New York Timesjournalist, Nicholas Kristoff, about the fate of Pakistan. He had specially come to Lahore to visit some of Kashf Foundation’s clients in order to document their stories. While we were travelling to the field, he mentioned that in his opinion, Pakistan was a “dangerous” place since only one per cent of the children who are enrolled in primary school are likely to graduate to grade 12. If we look at this in another way, there are 17 million children in Pakistan who are out of school; that is, one out of every 10 non-school going children in the world is a Pakistani. According to him, this was Pakistan’s biggest issue and not terrorism or corruption.
The events that have led up to the barbaric attack on Malala Yousufzai also point in the same direction. Malala is an icon for the all that is positive in Pakistan. She stands for the future of the country, where boys and girls have full access to education and where peace and tolerance can prevail. We live in a land of extreme contradictions; a 14-year-old school girl, albeit an exceptional young girl, chose to speak up for a right that should have been hers at birth — the right to go to school, the right to be educated. In most other countries of the world, young girls like Malala would not have to struggle to be allowed to go to school. As a society, we really need to do some hard thinking, for we are unable to protect the rights of our own children. Not only that but we are exposing our children to violence since we have not stood up against the forces that continue to target primary schools in parts of the country. It was our mistake to have remained quiet then and it’s an even graver mistake to remain silent today as Malala struggles for her life.
On the other hand, forces like the Taliban stand for all that is wrong in our country. They are the flag bearers of ignorance, intolerance, barbarism, bigotry, narrow-mindedness and fanaticism. I am actually surprised that some leaders would want to hold a dialogue with individuals who won’t bat an eye in taking the innocent life of a 14-year-old girl. And what was her crime after all? She was only asking that she, and other girls in her district, be allowed to go to school. Over the past few days, I have been scouring newspapers to see what our leadership has to say with respect to the attempt on Malala’s life and I must say, I am sorely disappointed. All I have seen are the usual platitudes about condemning the act but not providing a solution to the problem. In my view, the solution would be to counteract extremism by setting up schools in every community and ensuring that 100 per cent of primary school children graduate through to high school.
I know this sounds like an impossible task, given the kind of priorities that our government has demonstrated. The government has preferred to invest Rs126 billion in schemes such as the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) for the past four years, which provides a Rs1,000 income transfer to poor families. Given the scenario that is panning out in Pakistan, where education can perhaps be the only inoculation against extremism, wouldn’t it have been better to prioritise education instead and invest these billions of scarce rupees into establishing schools and improving the overall quality of education? According to an estimate, to put a child through primary school in Pakistan it would cost around Rs20,000 per student for five years. Based on this estimate, it could mean that the Rs126 billion that has been spent on the BISP could have put 6.3 million children through school for five years. Of course, academicians will question this simple thumb rule, but really it is all about choices that we make today and their impact on lives and individuals tomorrow. It is time to declare an education emergency in Pakistan and ensure that Malala’s sacrifice and courage do not go to waste.
The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation and founder of Kashf Microfinance Bank Limited based in Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2012.