To truly understand Malala Yousafzai, the youngest person ever to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, we need to understand the place she comes from.
Ms. Yousafzai is from Pakistan. The day Taliban terrorists shot her in the head she was on her way to school. Pakistan’s schools, its teachers and its education system are in such a desperate state of rot that the mere act of making one’s way to school, especially for young girls, is an extraordinary act of courage and faith.
Pakistan has a population of nearly 200 million people, of whom roughly one-fourth, or 52 million, are between the ages of 5 and 16. Pakistan’s Constitution guarantees all of these children a free and compulsory education. While statistics for this age group are difficult to come by, the number of Pakistani children between 5 and 16 who are not attending school is close to 25 million; most of them are girls.
While Ms. Yousafzai’s ordeal has brought global attention to the crisis of girls’ education in Pakistan, her admirable efforts are unlikely to succeed in improving the quality of schools across the country. That’s because the barriers to quality education in Pakistan are far greater than a few chauvinist Taliban extremists.
While we should all be disgusted by the violence, misogyny and extremism of Ms. Yousafzai’s attackers, that outrage must not prevent us from recognizing the true villains.
After all, it wasn’t the Taliban that laced the school curriculum with material that suffocates numeracy and reason — and with them the prospects for pluralism in the country. It wasn’t the Taliban that built schools without walls, without running water and without bathrooms. These are a legacy of a corrupt bureaucracy and patronage politics — during both democratic and military regimes.
And it wasn’t the Taliban that hired thousands of unqualified teachers. That is a legacy of the en masse distribution of political favors by political parties.
The Taliban did shoot Ms. Yousafzai, but there was enormous state failure before that shot was fired.
Pakistan’s educational failings go back to independence in 1947, but they were exacerbated in the 1970s and then only got worse. Different governments were like different cancers. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nationalized education in the mid-1970s, putting all teachers on the same salary scale and tenure. Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq “Islamized” the curriculum and textbooks in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, during their respective terms as prime minister between 1988 and 1999, built thoughtlessly and hired even more thoughtlessly. Gen. Pervez Musharraf simply continued things as they were.
Sadly, even if Pakistan were miraculously able to get 25 million children into school buildings that were not a hazard to the lives of their young occupants, we would still be a long way from solving the country’s huge education crisis.
Education is treated by the Pakistani state as a series of inputs: dysfunctional school buildings, and underqualified and disinterested teachers. This should not be a surprise. Building schools and hiring teachers afford politicians the opportunity to distribute patronage through jobs and contracts. The victims are our kids.
Pakistan’s only instrument to measure education quality at the national level is a study called the Annual Status of Education Report. The most recent report paints a grim picture. Roughly half of 10-year-olds demonstrate the competence expected of 6-year-olds in their mother tongues, or in Urdu, the national language. The number is lower for English. Arithmetic scores for 10-year-olds, when tested for the competence level expected of 7-year-olds, also hover near 50 percent.
The children who do manage to go to school do so against incredible odds. The conditions at government schools, which account for about two-thirds of all enrollment, beggar belief. The government’s own annual survey of state school facilities has documented these conditions. Last year’s survey revealed that 51 percent of all government primary schools didn’t have working electricity; 36 percent didn’t have drinking water on the school premises; and 42 percent didn’t have working toilets.
Public education is under incredible strain even in the world’s most educated and most powerful countries. But there are few places in the world where girls and boys have to take such huge risks merely to attend school.
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Pakistan’s fitful cycle of military and civilian rule has produced a national discourse in which there are disagreements about many things, but there has been one constant throughout. Pakistan’s government and society deny a decent education to millions of children.
Pakistani leaders are all too happy to celebrate young Ms. Yousafzai’s accomplishment, and they all recognize that the country faces an education crisis, but they don’t plan on doing anything about it.
Ms. Yousafzai’s prize should ignite revolutionary change in the fate of Pakistan’s younger generation. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to change much. This means that educating Pakistan’s children will remain a low priority for this country’s leaders. And that, sadly, will represent nothing new for Pakistan.
Mosharraf Zaidi is campaign director for Alif Ailaan, an organization dedicated to improving education in Pakistan.