Pakistan: Swat conflict takes toll on girls' education

"Pro-Taliban militants have burnt shops and girls' schools, which they claim are spreading 'vulgarity'."
"Taimur Shah (not his real name), a primary school teacher in a village near the town of Matta, in Swat, in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), was distraught when he saw the Government Girls' School of Gwalerai burn down last month.
"When the caretaker asked the militants who had carried out the attack if he could retrieve the school records, he was warned that he would be thrown into the inferno as well," Shah told IRIN. In the past year, Shah has witnessed many such attacks.

Pro-Taliban militants have burnt shops and girls' schools, which they claim are spreading "vulgarity", with the result that the lush Swat valley, about 150km northeast of the regional capital Peshawar, with a population of 1.8 million, has seen extensive military operations by the Pakistan army.

Where schools are still intact, unannounced curfews, shelling and bombing have disrupted the lives of pupils. "Even nights are not peaceful any more. There is continuous bombing going on," said Fazal Ahad, assistant district officer in the government's Planning and Development Department.

He said 103 schools had been torched, of which 99 percent are girls' schools. "Matta, Kabal and Kooza Banday are worst affected, although outside Mingora and Saidu Sharif, no area enjoys the government's writ," he said.

Ahad is unsure who the people fear more: the Taliban, who insist on enforcing Sharia (Islamic law) or the missile attacks by the security forces that have killed dozens.

For the 300,000 children of Swat aged between three and nine, there are 842 boys’ and 490 girls' government-run primary schools. But only 163,645 boys and 67,606 girls are enrolled at either private or public schools, according to official figures. Even before the destruction of schools began, about 50,000 were unable to get an education due to the scarcity of places.

In Matta, says Shah, not a single girls' school remains unaffected. Many of the boys’ schools, too (there are between 20-25 high schools) have closed down indefinitely, partly due to fears the school may be blown up. But partly, said Shah, "the teachers have become so de-motivated with the uncertain situation that they don't want to teach any more".

"By just looking at what has happened in Swat alone, we can see that we have missed the targets of the Millennium Development Goals of achieving universal primary education and gender equality," said Ibrash Pasha, regional manager of Khwenda Kor, an NGO working for the empowerment of women in NWFP.

The torching of so many schools, says Pasha, means "an estimated 14,000 girls are out of school at the moment".

According to Pasha, each year the provincial government budgets for 100-200 new primary schools across the province. It has been estimated NWFP needs 20,000 new schools.

"But if the government decides to rebuild these 100 torched schools, it will mean there will be no new schools in any other part of the province, due to budget constraints. Thus the Swat conflict will have, in many ways, had an adverse impact on other districts of the province too," he said.

In May this year, a peace agreement was reached between the government and the militants, but soon fell apart.

A civil society activist who did not want to be named for safety reasons said the abandoned schools had been taken over by security forces and turned into makeshift barracks.

Shah said many of the Taliban in his own village were former students. "They tell me they torch schools because that angers the government the most."

16 September 2008

Source: IRIN News