Saving Swat

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Militants, who now control well over half of the Swat Valley, have blown up at least ten schools for girls over the past week. The idea is to drive home the menace behind their warning that education for girls will be banned. People are listening. Indeed they have no choice but to do so. Private schools have refused to re-open after the winter break given the danger posed by militants. Some have simply announced an extension in their vacation till February 1. No one knows what will happen after that, but the fear is that 80,000 girls could be deprived of an education. The ‘softened’ militant stance, with education to be allowed up till the fifth grade, after all means nothing at all. Many parents are, at any rate, too terrorized to send children to school.

The federal information minister has promised schools in Swat will re-open by March 1. She has not clarified by what means this will be brought about or whether there is any expectation that Swat will, by then, be liberated. The NWFP government has suggested it could offer education to girls from Swat in other districts, possibly be establishing second shifts at schools that are already functioning. It is not clear how practical issues, such as distances or transport, will be handled or if these have also been considered. Unless entire families are shifted, the threat posed by militants will remain. The fact that many students in Swat have not been able to regularly attend classes for over a year will also mean they will struggle to sit matriculation or intermediate exams in April, even if they get a chance to do so. The need to save Swat from the brutality of militants must be taken up as an issue of the foremost priority. The government simply cannot afford to accept a situation where tens of thousands of girls remain out of school month after month. Even in the sprawling city of Mingora, the principal urban centre for Swat, schools have been attacked and destroyed. The issue is one of the fundamental right to education. No one should be able to snatch this away, using the force of guns and bombs, from hapless people.

The people of Swat have suffered enormously due to the conflict that has ravaged their homeland. They have faced atrocities at the hands of both troops and militants. Of the valley’s 1.8 million people, over half are estimated to have fled. Those who remain live every moment in fear, forced most often to comply with the demands of militants who have made their ruthlessness obvious. These people must be saved. Sanity must be restored to the area, people enabled to resume lives and children, especially girls, permitted to attend schools and reach out towards the opportunities that education offers them. Denying them this amounts to an unforgivable crime, the perpetrators of which must be punished. (The News)


Attacks on Swat schools

IT is education that is under attack in Swat and not just schools for girls. To prove this point, militants — intriguingly, they act in the secrecy of night and under the cover of curfew — blew up five schools on Monday in the valley. This was, so to say, in response to the federal information minister’s stern warning in the National Assembly that attacks on girls’ schools will not be “tolerated”. The attacks can also be interpreted as confirming that Maulvi Fazlullah meant business when his deputy announced last month that female education would be banned in Swat from Jan 15. This is a pity. It has grave implications both for the government’s writ in areas under attack from the militants and for the future of education in Pakistan which is already bleak. If the government with the help of a massive army presence has failed to provide protection to the people of Swat from anti-state elements, it is something to worry about. It certainly does not help infuse public confidence in the state machinery. Moreover, the government’s failure to counter specifically the Taliban’s proclaimed policy of targeting girls’ schools points to the apathy of our rulers towards the education sector and their indifference towards the need for the empowerment of women in our society.

This approach should cause serious concern in all circles that are committed to the development of an enlightened Pakistan. One cannot be certain how much importance the administration attaches to education. Some statistics are revealing. If the militants have torched or blown up 180 or so schools while occupying another five of them, the security forces have set up their bases in 18 schools displacing over 7,000 male and female students. It seems that education is the first casualty when two sides are locked in a tussle. Taking a leaf from the book of our governments since 1947, the militants have adopted a policy of destroying education to ensure that people cease to think and thus help anti-people regimes perpetuate themselves in office. Moreover, it is not just girls’ schools that have been targeted in Swat. Over 42 per cent of the institutions destroyed had boys on their rolls. Learning from the famous dictum ‘When you educate a man you educate an individual, when you educate a woman you educate a family’ the militants have shrewdly sought a more effective way of annihilating the education base in Swat.

Another message to clearly emanate from the destruction of schools is in respect of the status of women. Nearly 80,000, by one count, girls have been deprived of education while 8,000 women teachers are without a job. With decrees banning women from leaving their homes, can one expect any improvement in the status of women? (Dawn)