It is rare to see innovative thinking in respect of how governments, both provincial and federal, approach the matter of education. If the government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) delivers on the commitments it has made, it will be truly groundbreaking, and very good news for women and people with disabilities in K-P. The provincial minister for education, addressing a conference organised by the Society for Home Economics in Peshawar on May 22, said that there is to be free education for all students with disabilities, which will include all course fees, hostel and utility bills as well as study materials and aids to mobility where necessary. This is a very considerable commitment and will need to be backed up by the evidence of sincerity — beginning with creating disabled access to schools and university campuses, to include lifts, ramps and disabled toilet facilities. Disabled access to anything anywhere in Pakistan is abysmally poor.
The minister had more encouraging news. The upper age limit for women seeking admission to undergraduate programmes has been lifted. Previously, women over 25 were refused, but now there is to be no upper age limit for women wishing to advance their education. The effects of this are potentially profound and far-reaching. Mature women students, some of them married mothers in all likelihood, may now appear on campus. They have the opportunity to resume academic pursuits interrupted by matrimony and childbearing, and potentially enter the workforce as graduates in the foreseeable future. It was also announced that two new women’s degree colleges are to be set up, one in Abbottabad and the other in Nowshera, which is also going to increase opportunities for women in a province that in large part still struggles to get to grips with the fact that women have the vote, and the right to exercise that vote. Both of these initiatives — expanding access to education for women and education for people with disabilities — represent an enlightened vision, but both present significant challenges in terms of turning words into deeds, and deeds to measured outcomes. If the K-P government puts its money where its mouth is, then a brighter future beckons.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2014.