Monday, November 19, 2012

Pakistan must seize the day and educate its children

15-year old Malala Yousafzai is recovering in a UK hospital.
When a Taliban fanatic’s bullet wounded 15-year old Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan was forced to make a choice. It could continue it’s dangerous drift towards the bigotry and ignorance of her attackers or decide to invest in a future where education can dispel them. Thankfully, this last week, Pakistan has shown that it is ready to reach for Malala’s dream.

A little over a month after the Taliban attack on Malala, the government announced a massive stipend programme for nearly 1.4 million poor children. And shortly after that the National Assembly voted unanimously to pass a Bill to make education free and compulsory for all kids between 5 - 16 years in the Islamabad capital area. But since 2010, education in Pakistan has been devolved entirely to the provinces and therefore it is crucial that all provincial leaders start fixing the education sector, not just with fine words but with hard action. Indeed, Pakistan can afford nothing less right now.

The overall literacy rate in Pakistan is as low as 57% while the country is projected to face a continuing youth bulge till 2050. This is not automatically a recipe for social unrest but certainly Pakistan will continue to punch below its weight if it fails to educate these young people. Failure to educate girls especially will keep fertility rates high, contributing to a growing population with declining access to education and healthcare.

Pakistan’s all-powerful and myopic Army has had a pernicious influence even over the education sector. Military dictators like Zia-ul-Haq were notoriously contemptuous of “poets and professors” seeing university campuses as hostile territory that needed to be cleansed. But even democratically elected leaders feared investing in human capital as that money competed directly with the military budget. The result today is that over 7 million children are out of school, a majority of whom are girls.

When Pakistan was born in 1947, it set out an ambitious vision of achieving universal primary education in 20 years. 1967 has long gone and the country is still shifting that goal post. But with the international outrage that followed Malala’s shooting and the hope that her recovery has inspired within Pakistan, the country can turn a corner. This is aided by a much needed recognition in the international community that Pakistan must urgently address reform in this sector.

Brave Malala has opened up the opportunity. Now Pakistan’s leaders must do the job of seizing the day and educating all it’s children.

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