On June 8 elections were carried out successfully in Gilgit-Baltistan. The people chose their representatives with the hope that their needs and concerns would be addressed by the new assembly. One of these significant concerns is education. The success or failure of a new education strategy would be one of the criteria on which the new faces in power would be judged.
Education has been a field of great interest and development in Gilgit-Baltistan particularly for private sector organizations such as the Aga Khan Development Network. In fact, the communities which have progressed the most in the last few decades in our region are those which have welcomed the opportunity to access quality education for all of their members without discrimination.
However, education is a complex, multi-faceted issue that requires comprehensive planning and long-term strategizing. Unfortunately, in countries such as ours progress in education is merely measured quantitatively in terms of number of schools and universities and enrollment figures with hardly any focus on improvement in the quality of education. Yet, there is one aspect of education in Gilgit-Baltistan in which official policy has failed both in terms of quantity and quality. This area is that of special education.
There is only one government facility for special education in the entire region of Gilgit-Baltistan. It is the Special Education Complex in Gilgit city. As informal surveys of physically and mentally challenged children and adults have shown, their numbers are much higher than the capability of this single institution to meet their needs in terms of access and accommodation.
Many differently abled children in far-flung villages receive no education or are sent to schools which are not equipped to deal with their special needs. Lack of hostel facilities at the Special Education Complex makes it impossible for these children to access the education that they need. Despite promises by various dignitaries who visited this institution, no substantial official progress has been made to establish hostel facilities despite availability of a building on campus. Not only this, but this school only offers education up to class 5. Once a child completes primary level education he or she has no means of acquiring further instruction in Gilgit. This is particularly problematic for girl children who cannot travel to other cities unsupervised or live there on their own.
Despite efforts by some private organizations such as KADO and Mehnaz Fatima Montessori School, the issue of special education has not been dealt with on a comprehensive level by our social and government institutions. Special education is an area still waiting for government and private sectors’ proper attention. The scale of the issue is such that serious governmental efforts are required to address it properly. Not only is it important to establish educational institutions for the differently abled, but we must also focus on bringing about a positive change in social attitudes towards them. Prejudice, taboo and embarrassment make it difficult for families to provide children with special needs the proper care and instruction that they deserve. We need efforts for awareness, disambiguation and motivation which can be done by using the media, schools and religious institutions.
With a new assembly in power and heightened expectations from it, let us hope that those responsible for forming educational policies will finally pay some attention to this much neglected sector. The department of education needs to realize that more special education centers must be established in various districts while at the same time it is important to fully equip the existing facility in terms of infrastructure and quality of instruction.
Investment in special education brings in many long-term benefits by producing active and productive citizens instead of individuals who would be burdens on society if they are not properly educated. Education is the right of each and every child, no matter what kind of abilities they are born with. And it is high time that we as a responsible society paid them the attention and respect that we owe them.