Education under fire: the world has lost many more Malalas in Pakistan school attack

Protest in Faisalabad against the school attack. EPA/Ilyas Sheikh

It is a little more than two years since the education campaigner – and now Nobel laureate – Malala Yousafzai was almost killed. In Peshawar many more potential Malalas have now died. The people of Pakistan are paying the ultimate price for political decisions which were not of their making and for international events which have thrust the country to the forefront of terrorist attacks and acts of inhuman brutality.

Questions will be asked as to why this school was the target. This Army Public School was set up by the military but civilian families also sent their children there. The identity of the school as a military school does not provide a full explanation for what happened. Historically in Pakistan, army organisations such as military hospitals, defence housing estates and military schools are better resourced and have better infrastructure than other government schools.

Indeed, another aspect of this grim chapter has its roots in a lack of government education funding. Poor resources – and sometimes a shortage of will – has meant that not all children in Pakistan have access to free education. And so, over the years, religious schools or madrassas began to take a foothold in the country with the help of foreign funding tied closely to particular sects.

Pakistan’s poor are vulnerable and therefore open to whatever is available and affordable. Religious extremism, a parting gift of the late military ruler General Zia ul Haq, has grown relentlessly over the years. This can partly explain why some people began to sympathise with the Taliban. The word Taliban comes from Talib (seeker) and Talib-e-ilm (seeker of knowledge). It is clearly a misnomer.

Of course not all madrassas create extremists. They have been in existence for many centuries in the subcontinent and have mostly been small peaceful places. Indeed children at this Army Public School will have received some form of religious education and learnt to read at the very least the Arabic alphabet in preparation for reciting the Quran before joining this school.

A journalist at the school attacked by the Taliban militants in Peshawar. EPA/Bilawal Arbab

There was a clearly a lapse in internal security in Peshawar. But why target children? It is possible the Taliban chose a soft target because the gunmen could not attack other sensitive sites. Schools in Pakistan don’t normally have high security. This school was no exception. There are hundreds of Army Public Schools alongside other kinds of schools in Pakistan. The elite send their children to fee paying schools in urban locations, but this was not an elite school.

A chance for unity

One possible outcome of this attack is a resolve for unity across sectarian and linguistic divides, not just in Peshawar, but all over Pakistan. This act of barbarism has momentarily united the country and silenced the politicians’ internal disagreements.

After the pain has subsided there will be anger. After the despair and the burials of more than 140 innocent victims of senseless terrorism, questions will be asked about the future of schools in Pakistan.

The security of schools will have to be reconsidered. Parents will continue to send their children to schools in their neighbourhoods. They will not keep their children at home forever. Many parents don’t have much choice over which school is the best – or apparently the safest. It is hoped that there will be greater awareness of suspicious activities.

Fight for the future

Can the government provide adequate security to every school in the country? Should parents act as volunteers to guard their children’s schools? Schools are places of illumination and of learning, and should not become the battleground for competing ideologies. Schools can be places where social and economic, linguistic and cultural differences can be better understood and resolved.

Schools can become places which nurture confidence and stability in local communities. Pakistani parents have been deeply affected by this horrific attack. They will be looking for answers. Schools can help to build collaborations and partnerships across social linguistic and cultural differences.

It is a sad fact that ultimately the children of Pakistan are paying the price – either by being denied their basic human right to education or being used as fodder by the unscrupulous extremists and their brethren. The future is under attack and that will not be accepted in silence by ordinary Pakistanis.

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