By Aafiyat Nazar
Zeenia is in her early teens. She is weak and shabby. Farah, five, looks just like bones and skin. Furqan, an eight-year boy, with a feather-like figure could be thrown away by a mild blow of air. Ali, a nine-year-old boy, looks like a character in “stick figure art”. Incidentally, all of the mentioned children are from parents, who I know well and who have modest economic backgrounds, but sent their children to private schools, pay higher fees, and can feed them well.
On the contrary, Ahmed 10, Usman, 8, and Muawia, 12 regularly move across Gilgit city and are child laborers who collect trash to earn bread and livelihood and contribute to their family income. They are ostensibly healthier, at least in their outlooks, despite not wearing a clean cloth.
How to determine which of the mentioned children are in the stunted growth category?
I am not a health expert, so I can’t put any of the children in the category. What we can say with certainty is that latterly mentioned children have no access to schools for varied reasons.
Chief among such reasons appear to be poverty. However, there are also different contexts where other factors inhibit children from going to school.
In the context of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), district, Diamer has the highest number of out-of-school children (OOSC), numbering more than 40 thousand (incluidng 70% girls) due to accessibility, and remoteness, as well as other reasons. The government department of education (DoE) is already overwhelmed and lacks enough resources to construct new buildings and recruit necessary human resources. Despite the completion of the construction of 58 school buildings in the district, there is a ban on the creation of posts as per the DoE official.
To supplement DoE in the district, the army, and NGOs, such as Alight Pakistan (formerly American Refugee Committee), and the Aga Khan University: Professional Development Centre North, have been contributing by supporting and establishing schools. However, keeping the large number of OOSC in mind, the supplements appear insufficient. The number of OOSC will further increase and deteriorate if the government does not take appropriate measures.
The issue with any NGO intervention is that it has a specific timeframe. No matter how good they may be, they are definitely meant to be closed after the completion of their project life. Particularly, I had a direct experience of working with the 23 Non-Formal Schools with an enrolment of 1250 students (boys 510: Girls 720) under the umbrella of Alight Pakistan, which established and supported the schools in the form of provision of books, stationery, and some other basic needs besides teachers’ honorarium. These schools are usually housed in one or two rooms provided by the teachers’ families, free of charges. For around three years Alight supported the schools and ultimately withdrew its support in April 2022. These children are now at a crossroads and desperately looking for helping hands.
In other contexts, schools do not have enough classrooms to accommodate the enrolled children. Unavailability of furniture, clean drinking water, absence of boundary walls, and separate washrooms for boys, girls, and teachers are other issues, which have a bearing on the school environment and enrollment of children.
Another most important factor is the induction and training of teachers on a regular basis so that they cover some of the requirements of the 21st century. It would be a distant dream to prepare them for all of the significant requirements in a country like Pakistan, where the economy is highly dependent on foreign aid and loans.
In such a scenario, the recently “meals for school” program launched by the government of GB appears to be a surprising decision. What is the logic of such cosmetic, expensive, and short-term measures instead of focusing on the long-term and lasting issue of OOSC?
There are a lot of hues and cries on social media with relevant questions being asked about the meals for a school program. And such programs must be questioned when a significant number of OOSC are at stake.
It is relevant to ask if we really need the “meals for schools” in the first place? It is likely that the enrollment will be artificially increased till the time when the supply of food continues. What happens after that? Morever, it is also likely that the children will be out of school again as other important related issues remain unaddressed.
It is imperative for the government must develop and execute long-term sustainable plans if it has the will to serve the people. It must abstain from the extravaganza and take concrete steps to ensure that the basic needs of each school are fulfilled. More importantly, spending the public money on the deserving children in Diamer and other areas is more important. Genuine efforts need to be made for the implementation of the Gilgit-Baltistan Education Strategy 2015-2030.
The writer is an educator. firstname.lastname@example.org