“Hello, how are you?” I heard the sentence clearly. I had just entered a grade four classroom in Mardan, Pakistan, in a school that was running a co-educational English medium program in the middle of Kyber Pakhtunkhwa—a province that has been in the thick of the war against extremism and Talibanization.
I was not expecting the greeting. The children had gotten up when we walked in, chanted good mornings, and been asked to take their seats. Then I heard this tiny voice. I had just come in from the sun, so my eyes were still adjusting. I squinted and looked around to find a small girl on the extreme left, still standing and looking at me. She smiled expectantly, waiting for a response.
“Very well thank you, and how are you today?” I said.
“Very well, thank you,” she replied and sat down—quite satisfied with my response.
During my recent trip to Pakistan, I visited schools in Mardan and Charsadda, two main cities of the Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province that borders Afghanistan. These are either low-fee or free co-educational English medium schools in extremely poor localities, serving marginalized communities. All of these schools are managed by a local NGO and run by local, mostly female, teachers, most of them with master's degrees.
And despite being in areas that are the battleground for insurgents and extremism, thankfully all these schools have not only survived, but thrived.
Do parents object to co-education or to English as the medium of instruction?
The schools teach Pushto in preschool and then shift to Urdu and English by grade one or two, and then finally to English as the main medium of instruction. All of the staff I met said that they had never had any complaints from parents about either. In fact, most parents wanted their children to be taught English.
Nor was co-education an issue. The only complaint one principal had ever received came from one of her students, when a three-and-a-half-year-old boy starting nursery asked why he had to sit next to a girl. On being told that that was the way it was going to be, he got over it very quickly and soon made friends with his desk mate.
The only problem they had had was that in higher grades, some girls had dropped out as their parents had not been able to arrange secure transportation for them: walking to school was not considered to be safe enough after puberty. Some of the schools had been able to arrange for transportation with the help of the local communities (or the transport that brought teachers also brought the older girls), but others were still struggling.
While it is hard to think of more conservative neighborhoods in Pakistan than these villages and small towns of Kyber Pakthunkhwa, the fact is that people want education for their children, irrespective of gender.
Yet many schools have been destroyed in this border area, and there have been threats against English medium and NGO-run schools.
To me, blowing up schools shows how unpopular the extremists’ stand is on education. If the notions that girls should not be educated or English education was bad had popular support, the extremists would not have to blow up schools: they would be empty anyway.
And the teachers and principals I met confirmed that. There had been occasional threats to schools, and still were, but the teachers, with the help of local communities, parents committees, and local police, had been able to deal with them. One of the principals said that a community elder told her: “our children are in these schools and they are getting prepared for their futures here. We will not let anything happen to these schools as long as even a single house is standing in the vicinity and as long as even a single one of us is alive.”
The secret here, it seemed to me, was community support. The parents and community around the school knew the teachers and what was being taught. Even the local religious leaders appreciated the education that is being given in these schools. All of them trust the NGO and all the staff, who are all local, and they value and want quality education for their children. According to the teachers, even the poorest and the most illiterate of parents had no problem understanding the value of a good education and wanting it for their children.
But all is not perfect in this world. Suicide attacks in the cities and vicinities happen regularly, paramilitary and military action is ongoing, and the residents are living with the threat of violence and abductions all the time. And there is fear. There is no support for the extremists now, if there ever was any, according to the teachers, but the fear is there. People are afraid to speak up and stand against extremists or local thugs for fear of reprisals. They do not have sufficient trust in local government and law enforcement. This is perhaps the biggest weakness in the system right now.
The military can clear areas of extremists, but afterwards a strong civilian government that provides protection and support to the locals is essential. This has not been established, leaving local populations vulnerable to blackmail from fringe groups, gangs of thugs, and any extremist elements remaining after military operations.
The future of Pakistan is being shaped in these schools and by these brave female teachers, along with the parents and communities who support them, and the children who continue to come to learn. The confidence of the nine-year-old who asked me how I was tells me that the future will be bright.
But these communities, teachers, parents, and children need support to face the situation they are in. A stronger government in the local areas, which protects these people and gives them confidence to pursue their dreams of a brighter future for themselves and for their children, could go a long way in addressing some of biggest threats they face every day.