6 months ago in February a girl appeared on possibly Pakistan’s most famous talk show. A small petite figure not more than 5 feet tall and less than 14 years of age, clad from head to toe in a shabby white shawl stood in the midst of dozens of Taliban. Her big dazzling eyes and innocent face reminded me of the unnamed afghan girl whose image on a national geographic cover from the 1980’s told the real haunting story of the Soviet Invasion. She out cried “Open my school! I want to study and I am not afraid of anyone.” No this was a not another unnamed afghan girl from a remote village of Afghanistan, this was Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani, standing in Swat, the heart of Pakistan’s North Western Province.
Two months later the army launched a massive offensive in an effort to cleanse the Swat valley and its surrounding areas of the Taliban.
Last night I saw a young woman appearing on the very same show. She was dressed gracefully in a tortoise coloured shalwar kameez with a Green duppatta covering her head. A tress of her jet-black hair falling elegantly on her right cheek gave the impression that she had an innate sense of style. Her big brown eyes exuded confidence and calm and poised she answered every question directed by the talk show host with much conviction. Appearing in front of a television audience of more than 120 million seemed her second nature. No she was not a parliamentarian nor was she a foreign educated human rights activist. This was the same small Malala Yousafzai from Swat.
The army’s operation had been a great success; Pakistan had been taken back from the imposters who described themselves as upholders of Islam. Malala with her peers was attending her school once again with utmost freedom.
On the tv show Malala shared the discussion panel with the country’s brightest students, a fact which did not seem to intimidate her the least. Being the youngest and least educated of the show’s panelists she was inspiringly more articulate in her speech and clear in her thoughts.
In her interview to Times Magazine in January she expressed the desire of becoming a doctor, but today she cited Benazir Bhutto as her inspiration and said she wants to be a politician. Her sincerity was reflected clearly in her tone and she meant business. From the days when the fear of the Taliban forced her to hide her books under her shawl to the opportunity of sitting on national television demanding better standard of education for girls across Pakistan, Malala had come a long way. She was aware of herself, aware of her new role and what she represented. Her personal journey of courage, hardships and high spirits had seen her come of age. At this tender age, she didn’t speak much of herself but she used the air time to speak for the masses. Within a span of six months she summed up what a youth without opportunity is and what a youth with opportunity could be. From “Open my school!” to “Build their schools”, from a mere kid trying to finish her grade 5 she transformed into a visionary!
As a 14 year old, Malala, in the coming year will join the less than 30% literate population of women of Pakistan which in itself is no less than a privilege. And it was Malala’s sensitivity to her good fortune that she changed our focus towards the darker side. In a flow of genuine passion she, albeit a bit reluctantly, uttered the following words on national television; “At times I think if [President] Zardari’s daughter was studying in Swat the schools would have never shut down.”
To her the problem was simple and to her the solution was simple as well. If every literate daughter of Pakistan was an Asifa or Bakhtawar Zardari than each and every one of those 70% illiterate daughters is a neglected and abandoned Malala in need rescue. Our Heads of State, our legislators, our policy makers and our educated class is deprived of the sensitivity displayed by Malala. I hold that I am still being generous in my reflection of the two classes by counting the literate and educated lot as one. The observant reader would of course know the difference.
Pakistan is the 6th most populous country in the world with a 49% female population. Yet with such a soaring amount of human resources we are committed to its wastage rather its development. We take the 166th position in the world in terms of literacy, while our 118th ranking on the Education Development Index is no promotion given only 129 countries are surveyed to begin with. In South East Asia our women literacy stats place us much behind China, India, Sri Lanka and we are only ahead of politically volatile Bangladesh and war torn Afghanistan. The world’s average GDP expenditure on education is 5% or more but Pakistan’s latest budget of 2009 dedicated only 2.3% to the task. Far less than the required rate set by the Millennium Development Goals to which our government claims to have committed itself. Yet again we renewed our commitment to neglecting critical sectors which guarantee sustainable development. Thus it is not surprising that UNESCO predicts a promotion in our status in 2015 from currently third in the world to second in terms of out of school of children. So as I write this article Pakistan is abandoning more and more Malalas.
This is not entirely the result of our current policy but a continued lack of attention to the education sector has been displayed over the years. Though for the past two years NWFP was facing insurgency, still under the relatively calmer and peaceful regime of Musharraf the MMA government in its 5 years of undisturbed tenure was only able to improve the province’s literacy rate by 1%. Whereas PML-Q’s initiative of Parha Likha Punjab (Literate Punjab) was scrapped as soon as PML-N entered, hence Punjab’s Malalas paid the price of egoistic politics.
Whereas the educated class for its part has taken its education, its resources and its opportunities as a personal right either to be used or abused. More frightful is the inherent notion that this privilege makes it better than the uneducated lot and thus hindering free mixing of the masses. The deprived lot of Pakistan who is not availed the opportunity of education is also denied any healthy exposure. Our current government system is the mirror image of the masses electing it. A society in which respect is attributed according to the fact that does a person belong to Defence or Lalo Khaith, is only capable of producing leadership devoid of all genuine social sensitivity.
But our biggest shortcoming perhaps is self destruction of our present infra structure. Where much national and international attention was given to the 250 girl’s schools blown up in Swat, we continue to neglect over 30,000 ghost schools in Pakistan. These schools are not in the Taliban strongholds of Waziristan but in the urban hub of Karachi where some became home to drug users in Lyari and some were transformed into Rangers Headquarters in Saddar. The ones in Nawabshah, Khairpur, Badin and other parts of interior Sindh were seen as ideal substitutes of barns and thus are used to breed the live stock of the local feudal, most of them with political affiliations. The ones in Punjab became hideouts for local criminals or are run as the local gambling joint. But what causes the most embarrassment are those in Baluchistan, which are never there to begin with and only exist in government files and official statistics. Shafique Ahmad Khan, Balochistan’s education minister himself made the astonishing revealation that approximately 3500 schools i.e. 25% of the total schools in the province, only exist on paper.
We salvaged the Malala of Swat but many young, bold, high spirited and patriotic daughters of this country continue to wait for their opportunity. They continue to take their chances studying in schools with ankle deep sewerage water, heaps of cigarette butts, obscene graffiti on their classroom walls, outdated course work books, unqualified teachers and a deteriorating federal exam system.
Neither do they need massive army operations nor do they need peace deals which might jeapordize the writ of the state. They do not ask for airtime on national television either. All these millions of Malalas need is a serious attitude, a dedicated education policy and above all a society willing to exhibit some sensitivity to guarantee their rescue. And then may be where one Malala wants to be Benazir, we might truly be able to produce a Bhutto, a visionary, in every girl in every house.
The only immediate ray of light seems to be the National Education Policy of 2009, which plans to extend the GDP expenditure on education to 7% and if (emphasis added) implemented might translate into some progress. But little sincere action is expected from the current leadershup who does not even trust his own private university which he runs from Karachi to Dubai. If that university is substandard for his own children that he needs to send them to Oxford and Edinburgh then how does one sincerely assures that those hundreds of students studying at his university are getting top education equipping them to compete with international institutions? The battle is being lost at home, much before International competitors arrive.
And if the current leadership needs any motivation then I have no better example than the new avatar of Malala Yousafzai, which echoes one simple fact; “Change is Possible! Change is Neccessary!”
As for now to give my readers not a reason for superficial sympathy but a source for empathy I leave you with the following video.