The term ‘Education Emergency’ remained a fancy slogan for me from day one that I heard it, coming out in a mechanical gush from the mouth of a foreign presenter reading his call paper at a conference on the status of education in the developing world. Later, it registered as a distant problem which was seldom highlighted in government reports and scarcely in national media.
The treatment meted out to the deteriorating status of education in the country would have gone unnoticed and completely out of sight had I not come across real life agents of positive change – the hundreds of children who were going to schools and simultaneously working in adult capacities to make ends meet for their families. These were the children of The Citizens Foundation, whom I met in my new role of a communications officer soon after I joined TCF – a high network NGO in Pakistan working in the field of formal education.
Besides the astounding statistics of having 830 school units nationwide that TCF had built over a span of 15 years, what intrigued me more were my meetings with a handful of TCF students studying in various TCF campuses across Pakistan (which in total number 115,000). Coming from less privileged communities, which were diverse in many aspects, these children represented hope and courage, not to mention the hardships that life had burdened them with and the adversities that they were expected to fight.
My first field visit took me to Machar Colony, one of the largest slums of Pakistan and home to more than 700,000 poverty-stricken people of Bengali origin who have no place to call their home and no basic amenities to make living bearable, if not sufficient. Shanty compounds which accommodate more than 20 people, often two families sharing single rooms, these homes were a far cry from even the slightest definition of a home. With more than could meet the eye, there was a peculiar stench in the surroundings and I learned majority of the population in the area, particularly children and womenfolk were employed as shrimp peelers by the local fisheries. Children as young as five sat alongside their mothers in the early hours of the morning and very artfully shelled the frozen seafood with their little hands. These were the children who were left behind at homes only because they were on the waiting list, I was told. Thinking how parents could send out children as small as these out in the sea, I was glad to be proven wrong. These children were on the waiting list for admission in TCF school in the area. And that was where my trip took on a different meaning. I met Khadija.
Eight-year old Khadija cannot remember a day when she has not woken up to her mother’s callings of shelling the raw shrimp in past six years. Student of grade 2 now, Khadija is one amongst hundreds of children studying in the campus currently and from thousands who have passed out, when the school, one of the first five campuses funded by the founding members, was built 15 years ago. Studying science by a teacher who herself once was in Khadija’splace, there was only one thing that one could see radiating from both sides of the classroom. It was hope. Hope for a better tomorrow.
Getting back to work, I could not help but dust off all those files and reports that once looked like fancy material for some boring seminar on education. They were hardcore facts, glaring right in my face.
The 18th Amendment Act 2010 makes education a fundamental right for all Pakistani citizens; however, one in ten of the world’s out-of-school children is a Pakistani. To put this in numbers, a staggering 25 million out of Pakistan’s 70 million 5-to-19-year-olds are not in school. Out of these 25 million, 3 million will never be able to see the insides of a classroom. Given the profound youthful population of Pakistan, the impact of this bulk of largely uneducated youth, with limited skills, entering the workforce in the next 10 years is anybody’s guess.
The opening lines in the report were now clear: ‘The cost of not educating Pakistan equals to a flood every year. If we don’t act now, universal education will not be achieved in our lifetimes.’
The monster glared back at me.