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N.G.O.s put more Pakistanis in school

Many kids get no education or attend madrassahs, which may cover few subjects or even teach radical Islam.

By Mian RidgeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 17, 2008

More open doors: By studying at Sanjan Nagar, a school in Lahore run by a nonprofit, Sumaira and Sidra have a chance to go to college.

mian Ridge/the christian science monitor


Lahore, Pakistan

Hamida Bibi, like many Pakistani women of her class and generation, did not spend a single day of her childhood at school. Poor and illiterate, she had few employment prospects when her husband died six years ago, leaving her to support two young daughters, which she did by working as a servant.

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Her girls, to her delight, anticipate very different lives. Sidra wants to find work that will let her "travel the world." Sumaira plans to become a doctor. "It's been difficult for our mother but she's so happy we're studying," says the serious, bright-eyed girl, her head covered in a loosely draped yellow shawl.

Sidra and Sumaira are students at Sanjan Nagar, an English-language school run by a nonprofit organization in a dusty industrial suburb of Lahore. The school has 480 pupils between ages 3 and 18, all of whom come from impoverished families. While their parents are mostly unschooled low-wage earners, the girls here study a curriculum as advanced as any elite private school's – and their ambitions are correspondingly lofty. Indeed, every pupil in the 13-year-old school's first-ever final year is planning to apply to college.

The experience of students at Sanjan Nagar is rare, though. Pakistan's education system is in a dismal state, with state-funded schools practically nonexistent in many parts of the country.

Though subpar schooling exists in much of the world, the education crisis in Pakistan – a country at the front lines of the war on terror – has unusually grave ramifications. Without alternatives, many impoverished parents send their children to madrassahs, or religious schools, which often give free board and lodging. Many madrassahs teach orthodox Islam to the exclusion of all other subjects. The more militant among them are accused of recruiting volunteers for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

In July, Asif Ali Zardari, who was recently inaugurated as Pakistan's president, pledged that his government would close all madrassahs that did not subscribe to a national curriculum. The government would, he added, make education a top priority, "not just because it is right, but because it is in the long-term strategic interests of Pakistan and the world."

Largely due to the government's focus on defense, Pakistan spends less than 2 percent of its gross national product on education. This has led to a dire shortage of school buildings and teachers, who often earn less than the minimum wage of about $80 a month.

Some 6 million Pakistani children do not attend a single day of school; among those that do, there is a 35 percent dropout rate, according to Ahsan Iqbal, a former education minister.

"The major issue besides infrastructure is the content of education – the current curriculum is not preparing pupils for a life which will give them economic empowerment," says Mr. Iqbal