The chilling news about a grade 6 student Muhammad Umar of a government school in Faisalabad (aged 11) immolating himself on being humiliated by his teacher highlights how oppressive our schools and homes have become. Perversity lies embedded in the hearts, minds and souls of teachers who instead of claiming their rights and status through knowledge, attitudes and capabilities want to do so, on the basis of capabilities of harassment torture and abusive authority. The depressed humiliated child resorted to an extreme measure of setting himself ablaze with 90% burns. If teachers are not respected today are we surprised? Homes too are no secure havens, parents pushed against poverty and insensitivity place their children at the mercy of fierce teachers or employers; the children of the bottom income quintiles are doomed in Pakistan, silenced and smothered.
‘Maid tortured to death’ by employer, reads the Dawn City front page for Lahore on May 20, 2012. A 15-year-old maid Robia, who had worked for 5 years since the age of 10 in a home in Garhi Shahu in the heart of Lahore was tortured to death by her employer. Two sisters from Sheikhupura had been placed in a home by their parents (facilitated probably by a go between agent) to work as domestic servants instead of going to school at a very young age; one of them Robia only to end up dead for an alleged petty theft. I have mourned this tragedy many times and pleaded for an end to Child Domestic Labor (CDL) and its formal categorization as worst forms of child labor (WFCL) under the ILO Convention 182 to which the Govt. of Pakistan is a signatory.
In spite of many meetings with parliamentarians, human rights committees, departments of labor and education, and trade unions since 2004/5 the issue remains unresolved and CDL is not declared as WFCL. The reasons are obvious as children are in great demand as cheap substitutive labor when our daily needs of utilities, petrol, water and health become scarce and expensive; then children of the lessor god are hired as servants heaped routinely on pyramids of sacrifice. Robia ought to have been in school claiming 25-A not murdered, so whimsically.
My third commentary is on the article by Express Tribune May 20, 2012 “ Teacher thrashes eight grader breaks her shoulder”. This is the case of Shaheen an eighth grader studying in the Federal School system of Bani Gala in posh Islamabad. Shaheen was a bit lucky as she escaped death but was thrashed sufficiently to have her arm/shoulder fractured by an irate teacher, thanks to an equally oppressive ‘monitor system’. The monitor in charge a fellow /senior student is left in the class when teachers are absent /or simply doing other things. The monitor who revels in delegated authority often seen wielding a cane, squealed against Shaheen. The latter was not given any opportunity to defend herself of being wrongly accused of noise making in the class. For this ‘crime’ she got comprehensively thrashed by Mrs. Saeeda her class teacher and even denied water to revive herself. Shaheen, a courageous young girl made it to her maternal uncle’s home and polyclinic Islamabad. The case is still to be registered pending medical reports whilst the teacher’s family had the gall to offer Rs. 2000 to the family to let bygones be bygones. Shaheen is determined to resume her studies in spite of Mrs. Saeeda actions. We salute her courage to claim her fundamental right at very high costs and stress indeed.
Several detailed research studies on corporal punishment in schools have been done by SPARC, HRCP, Pakistan Paediatric Association (PPA) Save the Children, UNICEF, PLAN International since 2004/5. The government of the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa banned it in primary schools in 1999 and subsequently governments of Balochistan and Punjab issued directives to all teachers not to use corporal punishment on children, the famous ‘maar nanhin pyar’(love not punishment) campaign. The Sindh government also issued similar orders in 2007. NGOs, INGOs and multi-laterals have formally got reassurances on the ban, but week after week we receive harrowing stories of children punished in the worst possible way in government, private schools and madrassahs alike. It is brushed aside as culturally accepted practice in homes and schools and clearly the directives are set aside bearing little value.
In Rajanpur sitting with a group of mothers, community members and teachers last week I was sharing the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2011 learning levels results and access challenges particularly for girls. As we explored sitting in a school why girls and also boys do not enroll in schools and learn so little, the teachers of the government schools chimed in that learning today is undermined as ‘jaza and saza’ (acknowledgement and punishment) has been set aside. Teachers are adamant that they will not do away with the practice that produces results and obedience through fear and punishment no matter what the formal policies may state. Parents too are silent on this norm. Teachers feel strongly that their status is being reduced in society as children are being made to challenge their prerogative to inflict punishment. In dialogues with Teacher Unions, the latter are clearly not happy about this perceived ‘western’ preoccupation with child rights and not impressed with donor led initiatives with government on ‘child friendly schools’ and subsequent teacher trainings on the issue. Attending trainings is one thing implementing ‘lofty/misplaced’ principles is their privilege.
In case we have forgotten the 18th Amendment in 2010 did us a historical favor by granting us 25 A as a fundamental right in our constitution; making education compulsory and free for children aged 5-16, as a primary state responsibility. Two years down the road there is little action on 25 A. A campaign of one million signatures (OMS) by the children of Pakistan- the silent majority is about to conclude on June 6th 2012 as children bid their time to achieve a right based on justice that has been signed off , both nationally and internationally. Pakistan continues to lags behind all countries but Afghanistan in South Asia on key education indicators and is listed as ‘off track’ to achieve the MDGs for education .
As we celebrate Manto’s centenary in Pakistan I wonder what he would have to write about these acts of violence (physical, sexual, psychological), moral depravity and loss of humanity as seen through the eyes of the children. His principal characters would have been replaced by children and he would have surely pleaded for a ‘naya qanoon/new law ‘ for the children of this wretched society. Will the political parties flexing to get in power have the courage to pass the relevant laws in each province/ area on 25 A, raise the budget for education from 1.7% to 4% so that our Umars, Robias and Shaheens can live and prosper in a state that prides itself in its children, their education, learning and capabilities –for a sustainable, safe and happy Pakistan?