The South Asia Channel

Break the Taliban By Building Schools

Break the Taliban By Building Schools

Pakistan recently marked the one-year anniversary of the brutal attack on the Army Public School that killed more than 140 students in Peshawar on Dec. 16, 2014. The massacre was a key turning point for Pakistan’s war on terror. After 838 Taliban attacks on schools, Dec. 16 finally brought the insurgency’s threat to students and teachers to the forefront of Pakistan’s consciousness. If the country is to move forward with a new generation of educated young people, the education system must receive the investment and improvements it desperately needs.

The anniversary of the attack on the Peshawar school provided an important opportunity for the country to reflect on what more can be done to support the attack’s victims and families, and make Pakistan more secure. Media reports highlighted how the victims continued to suffer from lasting impacts of the attack — expensive medical treatments, the need for psychological rehabilitation, and learning loss. What was missing from the conversation was a hard look at the affect the Taliban insurgency has had on students and teachers in Pakistan’s troubled Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). They, too, continue to suffer from the effects of Pakistan’s decade-long war with the Taliban.

The collapse of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001 forced militants to flee and hide along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This precipitated a decade of militancy in FATA that further set back their underdeveloped and under-resourced education system by several decades. In 2001, the literacy rate in FATA was a pitiful 30 percent. By 2011, it had dropped to 16 percent.

The damage to FATA’s education system from the Taliban insurgency should come as no surprise. In addition to loss of life and trauma, conflict results in chronic disruption of attendance and a spike in dropout rates among both teachers and students. Student enrollment, especially of girls, declines, and out-of-school children fall prey to a myriad of child rights violations including early marriages, child labor, and recruitment into armed extremist groups. Teacher recruitment becomes a challenge. All of this has been observed in FATA, where teachers are afraid to return to school and parents and children, frustrated by disrupted learning cycles, give up on education.

The situation is especially difficult for internally displaced children, who either drop out of school or get caught between different curricular materials and educational standards. Compounding these problems is the psychological distress that has life-long consequences on students’ ability to learn, impeding their natural capacity to form new memories and maintain sustained and focused attention for any stretch of time.

Since the launch of the army operation in Waziristan, FATA, in June 2014, 300,000 children have been displaced. It is estimated that only 5 percent of displaced children are enrolled in schools of any kind. The provincial authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), a province in northwest Pakistan that borders FATA to the east where a majority of FATA’s displaced families reside, announced that local schools and colleges would admit all school-and-college-going displaced youths. According to provincial education department advertisements, formal documents or school certificates would not be mandatory for education, and students would receive 2,000 rupees, or the equivalent of $20, as a monthly stipend. Families, however, complained that the government was only providing facilities on paper. The truth of the matter is that schools in KP districts, such as Bannu, that host a majority of the internally displaced persons were already stretched beyond capacity. Displaced families themselves had occupied close to 460 school buildings as homes in KP because they did not want to live in camps.

The situation in northwest Pakistan illustrates the complex and multi-faceted nature of the impact of conflict on education, one that cannot be addressed through a security paradigm alone. While humanitarian advocates, such as members of the Education Cluster, an open forum for coordination on education in humanitarian crises, stepped in to provide basic education and psychosocial support to internally displaced children in KP, these groups faced funding and operational constraints and have only been able to reach roughly 17 percent of the affected children. Further, humanitarian responses alone are not sufficient to give Pakistan’s affected students and teachers a real shot at moving forward.

Families returning to FATA in 2015 and now 2016 are coming home to an education infrastructure that has been completely destroyed. FATA faces the daunting task of rebuilding an education system — one that will involve building new schools decimated by militants, reclaiming existing ones occupied by the army, and creating safe and dynamic classrooms that can support students who have not had access to continuous learning for nearly a decade. FATA cannot do this alone. It’s time for Pakistani authorities and international donors to recognize the urgency of setting FATA’s learners and teachers, long burdened by insecurity and conflict, on the path to rehabilitation and success. This will involve developing and rolling out a well-rounded strategy that takes a hard look at FATA’s existing governance structure, and how it can establish more effective mechanisms for local decision-making, accountability and service-delivery that prioritize long-term investment in the future of FATA’s children. Only then will Pakistan begin to address the lifelong effects of the Taliban’s devastating war on education.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images