Every year, Pakistan marks International Literacy Day on September 8, like the rest of the world. And just like every year in the past few decades, we lie to ourselves about what progress we are achieving in this area. To understand our problem, we should first acknowledge it. But we are not even willing to do that.
While the number of illiterate persons increases every year, Pakistan’s government claims that the literacy rate is climbing. Possibly to impress overseas donors who have poured millions into this area, the government claims that the literacy rate in Pakistan is 58 per cent with that of males at 70 per cent and females at 48 per cent, as due to the Population and Housing Census. This is pure nonsense.
While the government claims that two out of three Pakistanis can read and write, in reality the number is much lower. One out of three at best. Our actual literacy rate is at 30 per cent or less, according to the experts.
One recent report said that around 55 million Pakistanis of age 10 and over are unable to read and write, and around seven million children of age five to nine are out of school. In rural areas the condition is even worse where around 53 per cent of girls are deprived of primary education and never have an opportunity to attend the school. In other words, every year, despite the best efforts of the government, the number of people who cannot read and write continues to increase by leaps and bounds in Pakistan.
According to Alif Ailaan, a donor-funded campaign to better understand what is happening on ground and how serious the education challenge is - 22.6 million boys and girls are out of school. That is nearly half (44%) of all children in the country. In other words, for every child that goes to school in Pakistan, one does not. Of those children who do go to school, the vast majority receives an education of poor quality. Our government education system has deteriorated over the years. One can recall days when we had some good government schools catering to the middle class. Most of them have either shut down or deteriorated so much that parents are wary of sending their children there. Going to school is no guarantee of education, be it in the urban or the rural areas. In many instances, we see government schools turning into ghost schools - where the buildings stand while no classes are held as the teaching staff is missing.
In some areas, even the buildings have been taken over by the area’s influential persons for own personal use. In cities, we see schools demolished in urban areas to make way for marriage halls and in rural areas the same schools are converted into cattle pens. In case the school is even functional, studying there is a challenge. Forty-three per cent of government schools are in a dangerous or dilapidated condition and lack basic facilities such as furniture, bathrooms, boundary walls, electricity and running water, 21% government primary schools are operating with a single teacher and 14% with a single classroom.
We have seen pictures of how students are studying under the open sun. Classes are combined because most teachers do not turn up. The total number of teachers during 2016-17 were 1.726 million compared to 1.630 million during last year showing an increase of 5.9 per cent. This number of teachers is estimated to rise further to 1.808 million during the year 2017-18. But that does not mean all of them take classes.
But there is more. Why do children not want to go to school? One reason could be that corporal punishment is widespread and remains unchecked. Several instances of corporal punishment have come to light but little or no action has been taken against the teacher involved. Students have had their bones broken or suffered near-death injuries but nothing has come out of it. What is the government doing about it? Budget allocations for education are insufficient and funds that are available are not spent effectively. Under the Constitution of Pakistan, Article 25-A, it is the responsibility of the state to provide free and compulsory education to every child between the ages of five and 16. But as we know, this is not happening. What do we do about it?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2018.
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