Our leaders have a lot to learn from Malala Yousufzai. She is clearly one of the most powerful messengers in raising awareness about education. “This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education”, her words reflect her deep concern for the millions who are out of school. In this hour of darkness, she is a voice of reason and hope. But are we listening? The national and provincial leaderships did congratulate Malala on receiving the Nobel Prize, but Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), the province of her birth and domicile, was miserly and remains divided over paying her the tribute that she so richly deserves. Initially, the ruling party wanted the resolution to be clubbed with the demand for the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is in prison in the US on charges of murder. Later, when an MPA from the ANP floated a resolution that Malala’s achievement be recognised, it was trivialised by stating that it is “not a matter of national or provincial interest”. It shows how casual and half-hearted is the support for her in the struggle for education. It is depressing that instead of being jubilant on Malala’s recognition as a global icon, there prevails some sort of collective confusion and inferiority complex in our society about her outstanding achievement. If this is the attitude of the provincial government, how can anyone expect that it will provide her security if ever she were to return?
In sharp contrast, as Professor Emeritus Tahir Andrabi of Pomona College in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal points out, “when Malala accepted the Nobel Prize in Oslo, the accompanying pomp and press coverage helped rekindle a global fascination with the fearless young Pakistani activist”. The struggle and the commitment that she brings with her in promoting education worldwide are unparalleled for a girl of her age.
Malala’s message, along with that of joint Nobel Peace Prize awardee Kailash Satyarthi, goes even deeper by identifying some of the underlying causes that are distracting the two nations and particularly Pakistan from investing in education. The perpetual conflict between India and Pakistan is costing the two countries heavily in terms of forcing them to divert meagre resources to defence and depriving the most critical areas in education, health and development of physical infrastructure. At a time when Narendra Modi is stoking Hindu nationalism and Pakistan is bristling with multiple militant outfits and the Line of Control remains volatile, the sobering call of the young Malala and the seasoned Satyarthi are voices of sanity and calm.
The Taliban hate Malala because they are afraid of the message that she is giving to every child of arming themselves by going to school. The Taliban are clever enough to understand that an educated society would be their greatest enemy, especially so if girls are afforded equal opportunities. The enlightened and liberated mind of a girl will be more powerful than any weapon that the Taliban have in their armoury. It will break the walls of ignorance and prejudice and empower women to be equal partners in society.
It is the fundamental responsibility of every leader to promote quality education. One of the major reasons Pakistan lags behind the rest of the world is the denial of education to millions of children and its low quality. Pakistan’s full potential can only be actualised if the state is able to provide an easily accessible system of education that meets at least minimum global standards. After the promulgation of the Eighteenth Amendment, education has become a provincial subject. As provinces are the primary authority now, they should improve the performance of schools through better management and funding through local taxes and subsidies or through grants from the federal government. Public pressure should be built to ensure universal entitlement and improvement in standards. It is reprehensible that 43 per cent of children in Pakistan are in private schools compared with less than one per cent in some of the Scandinavian countries. Only when the system is fair will we be able to produce quality doctors, engineers, scientists, economists and professionals of other disciplines, generating wealth in the country.
The world is going through a revolution in education and spectacular progress has been made that has broken social barriers and provided equal opportunities to millions globally. Our leaders, being half-educated at best, are unable to comprehend the enormous transformational power of education. The PML-N’s project of providing financial resources to the poor so that they could earn a respectable living by starting small businesses or owning a taxi is a good one, but it should not end here as the real enabler that can transform society is education. Pakistan currently ranks 113 amongst 120 countries of the world, with only a 56 per cent literacy rate. According to the World Bank, Pakistan has seven million out-of-school children and two-thirds among them are girls. This is happening despite the fact that parliament, in 2010, passed a constitutional amendment making it mandatory for all children between the ages of five and 16 to attend school. Even by South Asian standards, which are one of the more deficient in the world, Pakistan is at the bottom. No country can bear the burden of such a large percentage of the population being unable to read or write in the present global setting. Pakistan remains exploited by the ruling classes that deny the majority of its population the economic opportunities that open up with education. Our leaders are afraid that if education spreads, then it could become an economic leveler and a precursor to a social evolution. The universalisation of education through a national curriculum that is commensurate with generally accepted standards can transform Pakistan. If Pakistan claims to be a democratic and just society, then it must ensure the spread of education to all tiers of society. This would also be the best way of complimenting Malala’s noble mission.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2014.