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Pakistan's Ghost Schools
In partnership with Unicef, Pakistan has promised to educate all of its girls by 2015 – but it’s a promise that appears almost impossible to fulfill, and not just because of Taliban and other militants trying to actively intimidate girls from going to school.
The situation, for boys, is better, but not much better. Across the country there are thousands of schools where the teachers simply don't turn up. In the Ghagar region on the outskirts of Karachi, for example, the blackboards in the damaged classrooms only gather more and more dust.
“The school building has been there for the last 14 years, but the teachers never come,” said Muhammad Azeem Marri, 40, who lives next door to the school. He says his three children are missing out on an education. “There are no classes. The teachers are being paid but the students are not getting taught,” he complains.
Such abandoned schools also represent lost opportunities for the progress of millions of children, according to the Global Corruption Report released in September by Transparency International.
Frustration is everywhere. Despite decades of intervention by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, Unesco and many other international multilateral institutions, according to Transparency International corruption has contributed to bringing public sector governance mechanisms close to collapse. Corruption, the report says, hass severely affected the quality of more than 150,000 government-supported schools across the country.
More than half of Pakistani children have no access to education, contributing to a long list of social ills including abject poverty, child labor and unemployment as well as frustration that drives youth into the arms of militant jihadists.
According to official figures issued last year by the Pakisani government, there are about 25,000 ghost teachers in the country, the majority of them in Sindh province.
Half a kilometer away from Muhammad Azeem Marri’s school, there is another government edifice, dirty with broken chairs and no benches for the children. And it’s not the only one. Across the locality, home to some 60,000 people, there are 35 non-functioning schools.
Iqbal Gabol also lives close to a government school in the locality. He hopes his three children will start going to school in the coming years but not a single teacher has been appointed to the school since it was built in 2005.
“There’s no electricity. The building is of no use,” Gabol sighed, “We’ve requested many times to the Chief Minister, the Education Minister, even the President to make it functional ... but nothing has happened.”
Across the country there are hundreds of thousands of the schools established by the government that are not functioning. Critics say the problem is due to the lack of an effective monitoring system.
And that is the reason why villager, 8-year-old Maria Ali had to stop her studies in grade three. She says she wants to become a teacher so she can teach others, but right now that is just a dream.
“I can’t go to school because we don’t have one here,” she says, “The teachers at the school where I used to go got fired and no new teachers were appointed.”
Early this year the Pakistani Supreme Court ordered a countrywide inspection of government-run schools to find out how many are running. In southern Sindh Province, they found about 20 percent of the girls and boys government schools are non-functional or do not exist.
In Ghagar there is only one school for girls and it is busy with students studying outside. Headmistress Mithal Sayal says the school is grossly overcrowded, with 450 students and only four classrooms.
“There are up to 100 students in one room,” she says, “There is only one toilet and both water tanks are out of order. The students and teachers bring water from their homes."
The Pakistani President made a donation of US$10 million to support the global initiative in the name of Malala Yousafzai, the young woman shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls' education.
The brave teenager has since vowed to wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism.
“Let's pick up our books and our pens; they are our most powerful weapons,” Yousufzai told the UN assembly earlier this year, “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution; education first."
Pakistan and UNICEF established the global fund to educate all girls by 2015. In 2010, the Pakistani government amended its constitution to declare free and compulsory primary education as a fundamental right of every child. Lawmakers in southern Sindh Province recently adopted a bill to make this a reality, but education activists say nothing has changed.
Lal Khan Panhwar, a member of the Sindh Graduates Association, says Pakistani politicians have ‘ruined’ the education sector.
“There is no difference in the mindset to the Taliban terrorists and our politicians. Both think the same way,” he says, “they're against education.”
But Nisar Khuhro, the Minister for Education in Sindh province, defends his government record.
"There were the teachers, who got themselves transferred to other places. But we’ve taken care of that,” explains Khuhro, “There will be a lower number of non-functional schools when the teachers return. There is no other political reason."
But for now people are coming up with their own solution. Nabi Dad Nabol has set up a madrassah, or Islamic school, outside a government ghost school where 10 boys, but no girls, are studying.
“They are not getting a modern education,” says Nabol, “So I thought at least we can teach them religion. But we can't teach them everything here and the students will be behind.”
(Another version of this article was broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H at www.portalkbr.com/asiacalling)