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Pakistan is Failing its Children

In repeatedly ignoring the education sector, the state is setting up future generations for failure

by Essam Ahmed Zaidi

File photo. Arif Ali—AFP

Education and literacy are perceived as the cornerstones of societal development, with Pakistan’s Constitution explicitly defining access to education as a fundamental right, accessible to all regardless of background or socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of resources, quality education remains out of reach of the average Pakistani, with little signs of any improvement. Years of neglect have left crumbling infrastructure and a substandard curriculum, directly and indirectly leaving a populace unsuited to the needs of the modern world.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the Finance Bill 2024, which has continued the trend of allocating less than 2 percent of the country’s GDP for education. This not only lags significantly behind developed countries, such as the U.S. and Denmark whose allocations average out to 6 percent, but also regional neighbors India and Nepal where the median sits at 3.5 percent, practically double Pakistan’s spending. This shortcoming is most evident within state-run educational institutions, which are beset by problems ranging from outdated curricula to untrained teachers. Adding to the woes is the voluntary withdrawal of students from school by parents due to economic considerations, reflecting the key role played by poverty in preventing the access of quality education for all.

According to the Pakistan Institute of Education (PIE), more than 26 million children are currently estimated to be out of school, with roughly 10.8 million of them between the ages of 5-9, a critical age for primary education. The problem is most pronounced in underdeveloped areas, with a majority hailing from rural areas of Balochistan and Sindh, where the state’s failures have fostered a lack of trust in formal education. Rather than attending schools, children in such situations are easy prey for exploitation in the form of child labor and underage marriages, as well as a dearth of employment opportunities when they enter adulthood.

Child labor in particular is facilitated by the lack of quality education, with UNICEF estimating that more than 3 million children between the ages of 5-17 are employed in several industries as cheap labor. This is a direct result of rising poverty, with poorly run state schools and expensive private facilities encouraging impoverished parents to pull their children out of school to contribute to the household income. Unfortunately, this only encourages further poverty, as uneducated children become uneducated adults who are unable to secure gainful employment that can facilitate a shift in socioeconomic standing.

Pakistan’s patriarchal norms, meanwhile, encourage the early marriage of young women to ease the family’s financial burden, with UNICEF reporting that 21% of all women in Pakistan are married before the age of 18, and 3% of those before the age of 15. Parents with limited resources also prefer to educate boys over girls, leaving them with lower rates of enrollment and completion of education when compared to their male counterparts. This disparity further impacts economic output, as women are relegated to parents and homemakers, with little care given to their potential as professionals.

American religious leader Brigham Young once noted that educating a woman educates an entire generation, while educating a man solely benefits the man. This is particularly reflected in Pakistan’s context, as leaving women uneducated perpetuates a cycle of ignorance that can see generations of a family lacking formal education that could help them improve their lot in life. For those families who wish to overcome this inequality but lack the funds to secure quality education, the only available option is madrassas, which leave their students woefully unprepared for the modern world.

The religious education provided in most madrassas sidelines practical subjects, leaving students with little to no understanding of math, science or the humanities. Graduates of such institutions struggle to secure all but the most basic of employment, as they lack the bare minimum of qualifications to even apply for most sectors/industries. Additionally, limited exposure to society increases the difficulties of graduates seeking subsequent integration into the workforce, hampering their economic prospects.

There is no denying the positive effects of investment in the education sector on the broader economy. Whether through the development of capable human capital, a skilled and multi-talented workforce, or an increase in the average income, a learned population not only boosts the overall economy but also stifles inequality. Achieving this, however, requires sustained and substantial budgetary allocations for education, which Pakistan has consistently failed to achieve. Resolving this undoubtedly requires a multi-faceted approach, made all the more difficult by the country’s prevailing economic downturn. But if authorities don’t act now, deeming educational spending an investment rather than a handout, many impoverished families would struggle to overcome generational economic burdens, leaving a country that is doomed to repeat past mistakes, with mounting poverty that further widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

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