|March for Education, a campaign by Pakistan Education Task Force asks us to make March the month that Pakistan talks about only two things: Education and cricket. I’ll opt for the former.|
Last week, Dubai hosted a benefit dinner called Pakistan Appeal, to raise funds for the flood victims of last year’s floods in Pakistan, of which, more than 1.8 million are said to be schoolchildren. One of the guests at the dinner was Greg Mortenson, a 53-year-old American, who has steadfastly dedicated himself to provide schooling and education to children in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1993, Greg came to our region to climb K2. It was while recovering from the climb in a village called Korphe, that Greg met a group of Pakistani children sitting in the dirt and writing with sticks in the sand. That was the moment Greg promised to give these children a school. Thanks to the commitment of one man to the cause of spreading education, not just Pakistan, but all of Central Asia is, today, richer by 180 schools.
Interestingly enough, while Greg has devoted his life to promoting literacy in rural and remote communities, he is decisively focused on educating the girl child. This is because of something he calls ‘The Girl Effect’. Greg explained that, “Once you educate the boys they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities, but the girls stay home, become leaders in the community and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and healthcare and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.”
Greg realised soon enough that his was not a viewpoint which would be easily acceptable to many in the rural areas of the subcontinent and Afghanistan, where educating girls is still considered an affront to traditional values and tribal customs. However, after surviving two fatwas from enraged mullahs and innumerable threats from the Taliban, not to talk of threats also from his fellow Americans post 9/11 for helping educate Muslim children as well as an investigation by the CIA, Greg resolutely continued to push forward his mission to spread education.
A firm believer in the age old adage “if you educate a boy you educate an individual; if you educate a girl, you educate a community”, he illustrates his point with the story of Aziza, who studied maternal healthcare after her village primary education was completed. “Just a $2,000 investment by the Central Asian Institute (of which Greg is founder and executive director), in Aziza’s maternal healthcare training resulted in a drastic reduction in infant mortality in her village upon her return — and no mother has since died in childbirth (in her village).”
Now, going back to the education emergency which has been declared in Pakistan. The report published by Pakistan Education Task Force states that 26 countries which are poorer than Pakistan, put more of their children into primary school. Hence, making the point that money, whilst being an essential ingredient in providing education, is certainly not the main obstacle in successfully educating a community, or even a country. The story of Greg Mortenson illustrates this very aptly. The crux of the matter is that it is not money, but will, and most importantly, political will, which is required to end this education emergency. If the cost of not educating Pakistan is the equivalent of one flood per year, then what we are facing is a national catastrophe. The challenge of educating Pakistan is surmountable, should the government of the day show political will to commit itself to this task and give this issue the importance it duly deserves.
Though the abysmal state of our education sector is the outcome of continuous neglect by successive governments, here is a perfect opportunity for the current government to make its mark where others failed. Every effort to push Pakistan forward is futile, unless, the government first pledges to provide universal education to its people. Therein alone lies hope for Pakistan’s future.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 01st, 2011.