‘We owe our children …’

As Pakistan increasingly spirals into the dark abyss of mayhem & bloodshed, importance of education seems lost on us.

Alizeh Iqbal Haider July 09, 2013
The writer is a barrister, human rights activist and a PPP member of the National Assembly. She tweets @AlizehIHaider

It is difficult to imagine a world without Nelson Mandela, the man whose struggle for freedom has inspired nations to rise against injustice and subjugation and whose vision and resilience has given people across the world the most precious gift of all: the courage to believe in dreams. As we are confronted with the sad possibility of losing this great man, let’s see how we, in Pakistan measure up to his ideals.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.” — Nelson Mandela.

If such is the measure of a society’s deliverance, the less said about Pakistan the better. Just a few of the damning revelations made by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) in its latest report are enough to shame our collective conscience. According to this report, almost 225,000 annual newborn deaths are reported in Pakistan. Add to that, the number of children who suffer disabilities or die due to the resurgence in polio and measles in different parts of the country. Two million of Pakistan’s children are engaged in labour. We have 1.5 million street children — a number that is consistently growing in urban centres. The report reveals that violence against children remains culturally entrenched, as children in Pakistan have to cope with physical violence, sexual abuse, trafficking, recruitment in armed conflicts and acid attacks. In 2012 alone, there were 3,861 cases of child sexual abuse — and these are only the reported cases. Harrowing tales are told of our juvenile justice system, where despite the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000, children are denied bail, kept with adult prisoners and produced in fetters and handcuffs courts. A shocking charge sheet to say the least!

Undeniably, the right to education, too, is one of the most fundamental rights of a child, however, as per the SPARC report, 25 million children and adolescents are out of school in Pakistan and on the Education Development Index, Pakistan is ranked an abysmal 113 out of 120 countries. One of the most famous quotes by Nelson Mandela goes: “Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.” Yet, as Pakistan increasingly spirals into the dark abyss of mayhem and bloodshed, the importance of education seems lost on us and we continue to misdirect palpable proportions of our budget towards our defence needs.

When Pakistanis are being killed by bombs and bullets daily without fail, when every day brings home more coffins of innocent citizens, when schools, hospitals, places of worship and family recreations are turned into tragedies, then it would be a logical conclusion to state that Pakistan has earned no dividends out of investing heavily in so-called defence needs over so many years. At the expense of providing our children their fundamental rights to education, health and protection, our defence budget runs our coffers dry, while ironically, the children of Pakistan remain defenceless in the face of attacks.

As I write this piece, the news of seven-year-old Syeda is flashing on television, who had gone to the Anarkali Bazaar’s food street to have ice cream with her parents. Syeda’s little body now lies in the Mayo Hospital mortuary because her parents, who sustained severe injuries from the attack, are still hospitalised and cannot carry out her funeral rites. She will be kept in cold storage till her parents are discharged and can bury her.

Such is the way Pakistan treats its children.

Conversely, at the convocation ceremony of SZABIST, just a night ago, the hope and excitement of young boys and girls in grand robes and tassled hats infected the air. One graduate from interior Balochistan took to the podium, beaming with pride and fumbling for words. “I am just so happy today, you know.” The entire hall broke into warm applause. Such is the happiness, such are the experiences and opportunities that are the right of every Pakistani child. The day Pakistan gives its children the right to have a real childhood is the day we will know that everything will be okay now.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2013.

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