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Pakistan: Government Launches Ambitious Program To Combat Illiteracy

Pakistan's constitution guarantees free, basic education for all citizens. But the reality is far different. More than half of Pakistan's people remain illiterate -- a fact that continues to hobble economic progress. The government's inability to diminish poverty levels, combined with the influence of the war in neighboring Afghanistan, have helped fuel a worrying rise in Islamic radicalism. Aware of these challenges, Pakistan's government has just launched an ambitious "Education For All" program, which is aimed at bringing literacy to most of the country's population -- and all children -- by the year 2015. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports from Islamabad, the task will be daunting.

Islamabad, 6 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Inayatullah used to be an ambassador in his country's diplomatic service. But in his new role as newspaper columnist and government critic, Inayatullah is anything but diplomatic.

The Pakistani authorities, he tells RFE/RL, have done little to improve literacy levels over the past 20 years: "We have wasted two decades, so to say, not doing anything for adult literacy. Now, there are about 55 million adults who are illiterate in this country. And as far as women are concerned, three out of four women in Pakistan cannot read and write. So, it's very tragic."

In 1982, the government named Inayatullah to head the country's first Literacy Commission, but the body was soon disbanded and subsumed into the Education Ministry, where it has languished ever since. Now -- belatedly, Inayatullah says -- the administration of President Pervez Musharraf has again turned its attention to the need for a major leap forward in educating Pakistan's people.

Partly, the government is worried about the long-term stagnation of the economy. More than 70 percent of Pakistan's population is rural. Inayatullah observes: "The lack of literacy means backwardness in many, many ways. Most of the community development programs cannot be sustained because women in the rural areas cannot communicate. It's all oral communication, which fades out. But if they can keep a record and give and receive signals, then they can integrate the messages and also be a little involved."

The other reason for the government's new attention to education has been the recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism -- what some refer to here as the "Koran and Kalashnikov" culture -- being imported from the conflict in Afghanistan. Ironically, it was the Pakistani intelligence services that brought the Taliban and the radical mullahs to prominence. But the boomerang effect into Pakistan has been an unwelcome side effect.

Nasreen Iqbal, the principal of a grammar school in the city of Rawalpindi, recalls that when she was young, girls and women enjoyed far more freedom and mobility. Fundamentalist mullahs, she says, existed only on the margins of Pakistani society: "They were not regarded by the society as anyone of any importance, and they had no say anywhere. But now, when they've got the money, when they've got the weapons, suddenly they were catapulted to a place of prominence in society. And they started making things difficult for everybody."

Iqbal says lack of education among the general populace increases the popularity of such radical mullahs, even though she believes their message is a perversion of Islam: "They don't understand the religion themselves, but because of the role which has been assigned to them, because of that, they just get onto the loudspeakers and say something which is really against the spirit of Islam -- that's what they keep preaching. And most of the masses, because they're uneducated, they feel that maybe this is what they're expected to do."

Many poor parents send their children to madrassahs, or religious schools, where the only education they receive is a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran, because it is free and, at least, the kids are fed.

Government schools, by contrast, often charge fees. Many parents -- especially in rural areas -- simply do not send their offspring to school at all. It is often a question of survival. An extra pair of hands in the field or the tool shop means added revenue. And as Iqbal notes: "Economics is such an important part. When you have nothing to eat, that's the only thing which you can think of."

The main issue the government will have to address -- given that most of Pakistan's 140 million people live at or just above the subsistence level -- is how to make education relevant.

Iqbal tells the true story of a former country boy turned prosperous businessman who, as an act of philanthropy, opened a school in his former home village to educate the local children. The parents were less than happy with the end result: "They came back to him and they said, 'Now this is the unkindest thing you did to us. Our children, after their matriculation, they can't get a job and they will not even work as hands in the field because they feel they're educated. So where are we [left]?'"

Iqbal believes the key is vocational instruction: "You have to introduce some technical education, some skill training, so when they complete their eight years in school, or five years in school, or 10 years, they have to have some vocation, because otherwise it doesn't serve any purpose. And the motivation for the parents will only be there when they know that at the end of five years -- that's the primary education, then eight years is middle and 10 is matriculation -- at the end of it, the child will be able to earn something. And it's only then that they'll go to [school]."

In the southern province of Sindh, the provincial government has come up with a novel program to encourage parents to send their girls to school. Each girl who attends classes for at least 22 days each month receives a 5-kilogram jug of vegetable oil for free. So far, attendance has shot up to 80 percent.

Iqbal says that in her experience, parents are interested in seeing their children -- both boys and girls -- get a good education. But again, it is a question of simple economics. Every day, the school she runs in Rawalpindi holds after-school literacy lessons for underprivileged children, most of them girls. Iqbal says: "I wish you could have met the women who have sent these girls here to school. I had an orientation meeting with the women who sent them, because I wanted to meet them. I wanted to tell them what our goals were, and I wanted to ask them what their expectation was. One-hundred percent of them said -- and most of them are either helping hands in homes, they go to wash clothes, or they are cleaners -- and they all said: 'We don't want our daughters to do this!' They picked up their brooms and said, 'We don't want them to do this. That's why we're sending them to school, so that they have a better way of life.'"

Opposition politician Haji Ghulan Ahmad Bilour, a former minister in the disbanded cabinet of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, tells RFE/RL it is time for the government to reverse its priorities from defense to social spending, if it is serious about its "Education For All" initiative.

"We have no money to give to our people for education," he says. "We have no money. We are spending our money to get to the Red Fort [in Delhi] in India. We're spending all of our money on defense."

For now, without government assistance, most of Pakistan's people are caught in a vicious circle. Grinding poverty prevents them from sending their children to school, as they cannot afford tuition and cannot spare the labor. But if today's kids remain uneducated, they will only continue the cycle of misery into the next generation.