Education under attack in Pakistan

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Taliban targets schools in Pakistan because education threatens their influence. [Hashoo Foundation USA - Houston TX/Flickr]

The EU should use its development and security programmes in Pakistan to ensure children have safe access to education and keep them out of the hands of extremists, writes Marie Arena.

Socialist MEP Marie Arena is a Belgian Member of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.

In one of the most recent attacks against educational institutions in Pakistan, on 20 January 2016, armed men stormed the bacha Khan University in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from the city of Peshawar. 21 students and teachers were killed and another 100 injured at a fight with security forces which lasted for hours.

Just over a year before, on 16 December 2014, a group of Taliban gunmen stormed a school in the north-western part of the country, spreading horror and death with their guns and bombs in what has been described as one of the greatest tragedies of the recent history of Pakistan. In that attack, the reckoning was 148 killed and 80 wounded, at least 132 of them being children. The attack took place when at least five heavily armed Taliban gunmen, wearing suicide vests, entered the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. According to initial reports, the gunmen opened fire on students and took dozens of them hostage.

Both attacks have been claimed by the same terrorist organisation Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a supposedly banned organisation in Pakistan, which has also been linked with the Pakistani Intelligence Services (ISI).  Khalifa Omar Mansur, one of the TTP leaders, declared in a video after the recent attack that his organisation would attack every educational institution that produces lawyers and judges who then run a legal system in “parallel” to Sharia law, vowing to eradicate any Western influence into Pakistan.  

But these are not the first incidents that involve Taliban attacks against school children in Pakistan. On the afternoon of 9 October 2012, after Malala Yousafzai, then a 12 year old, boarded her school bus in the northwest Pakistani district of Swat, a gunman asked for her by name, then pointed a pistol at her and fired three shots. Despite being the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai was not well received in Pakistan, with the Taliban once more threatening her, and more generally at any efforts to educate girls and children in Pakistan. Recent events would suggest that they have begun to make good on their threats.

According to the Global Terrorism Database, Pakistan has suffered the most attacks on educational institutions in recent decades, followed by Nigeria. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Secretariat has said that more than 550 schools have been blown up by terrorists in the FATA alone since 2004. The message is clear: the Taliban does not wish to tolerate any form of education in Pakistan that creates educated people; citizens who are then difficult to control and use as weapons for their interests. The Taliban and their supporters wish to maintain the existing low literacy rate so that they can use ignorance to their advantage.

According to the EFA Global Monitoring Report released by UNESCO in 2014, a staggering 5.4 million children are out of school in Pakistan, which in turn makes these children easy prey for religious extremists. According to the UNESCO Report, Pakistan has reduced its national contribution to education from 2.6% of the GNP in 1999 to 2.3% in 2010. Projecting a grim future, the report states that if the country moves at its current pace the adult literacy rate (age 15 and above) by the year 2015 will be 60%, with the figure at 47% for women and 72% for men. The adult illiteracy rate in 2015 was estimated at an appalling 51 million. A 2015 report by UNESCO confirmed this data, mentioning that no significant progress had been made in Pakistan for access to education for its children.

This raises many questions, the most important being the rights of the children in Pakistan to have access to basic education, and the ability of the Pakistani government to provide safe access to this education. The European Union and the international community have been providing assistance to Pakistan in the form of direct funds and trade benefits, the latest being the granting of GSP+ status, to assist with development and stability in the country ravaged by violence.

As a form of development assistance, the EU should strengthen the focus on the rights of children to education through the monitoring process and the political dialogue with the Pakistani authorities. Therefore, the EU should increase its efforts to encourage the establishment of a Commission on the Rights of the Child and work more actively to contribute to the abolition of child labour across the country.  We should play a more active role in giving the children of Pakistan the hope for a better future for themselves and their families through providing safe paths to education. The EU development and security agenda in the area should be based on these principles.

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