They began as whispers, at first easy enough to ignore. “Why such a focus on just one girl”, they said, “what about the innocents killed in drone strikes.” It became a chorus, and finally, perhaps inevitably for Pakistan, morphed into a wretched conspiracy theory, fingers pointing anywhere but inwards. This is not the first time a productive national conversation in Pakistan has been hijacked by convoluted, paranoid thinking. This happens time and again, perhaps because looking inward is painful and difficult. According to the 2012 Pew Global Attitudes survey in Pakistan, only 12 percent of respondents are satisfied with the way things are going in the country. Pakistan is a country in malaise, at war with itself and in a perilous economic decline. But what should have been a powerful opportunity to silence its inner demons and to invest in development, the nation’s energies have been diverted into a dangerous pastime: finding someone else to blame.
The facts in this matter are black and white and the road ahead is clear, but the country’s vision has become blurred. The facts are that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and no one else, is responsible for shooting a girl who dared to go to school. This is about the attempted murder of one Pakistani citizen by another Pakistani citizen. This fact has nothing whatsoever to do with drone strikes. In fact, if drone strikes were to stop tomorrow, the TTP would still exist and it would still be burning down girls’ schools, targeting innocent women and children, brutally silencing anyone who dares to raise a voice. This is not mere speculation or conjecture: they wreaked havoc over Swat in 2008 and early 2009, before the current level of drone strikes began.
It is also a fact that the Pakistani government has not shown a concern for development. Last year, development spending in Pakistan was a paltry 2.8 percent of the GDP. It is then no surprise that education, let alone girls’ education, has not been a priority. A new UNESCO report shows that Pakistan’s progress in getting poor girls to go to school is less than half of that in India and Nepal and a quarter of that in Bangladesh. Pakistani women desperately want their daughters to be educated, regardless of how poor or illiterate they are. I heard this from each woman I interviewed in a study I conducted in the villages of Punjab and Sindh a few years ago. Girls face enormous constraints in terms of access to schools because the government has traditionally built one girls’ school for every two boys’ schools. Compounding these problems of access are cultural constraints to girls’ mobility, especially once they reach puberty.
However, increasing enrollment through building schools alone is by no means the entire answer. For even the lucky few who go to school, the education they receive is of dubious quality and their learning is very limited. According to a large survey in Punjab, children at the end of third grade are functionally illiterate and innumerate. They are not able to perform basic mathematical operations, unable to write simple sentences in Urdu and unable to recognise simple words in English. We know that our national curriculum is biased and presents a one-sided view of history. It is an understatement to say that it does not promote critical or creative thinking. It also perpetuates poverty by not preparing the population adequately for jobs. All this is not news. But how often have you been in a conversation about how to increase access to or improve the quality of schooling in Pakistan? Instead of getting mired in a murky debate about the world machinating against Pakistan, the nation’s time would be wisely spent in thinking about what precise interventions we need for development. To this end, Pakistan might want to emulate its more developed neighbour to the east. In an experiment run by U.S. academics in India, which suffers from problems of low teacher and student attendance and limited learning in schools just like Pakistan does, teachers were asked to take pictures with their students at the beginning and at the end of the school day. The result? Teacher attendance and student test scores both increased. The lesson? Many of Pakistan’s problems are not unique and the solutions to them are not necessarily expensive.
Recently, one of the two U.S. presidential candidates dealt with a backlash on his views on women’s rights. This is in part because of his unfortunate choice of phrases such as “binders full of women” and “women coming home to make dinner”. This is where the rest of the world stands, and as they watch, Pakistan is blundering in its response to half of its population’s most basic and fundamental rights: to education, to speech, to work, to a dignified and purposeful life. The gap between Pakistan and the rest of the world has never been greater and the country’s problems have never been more glaringly bared in front of the world. This is a time for introspection: it is time to take a long, hard look inwards and to get to work.