Pakistan Faces Obstacles to Literacy

Political instability and indifference hinder progress for the country's undereducated

IN feudal Pakistan, educating the people at the bottom worries those at the top.Vincent David knows. After three decades of battling illiteracy through adult education programs, Mr. David says the biggest obstacles to teaching more Pakistanis to read and write are official indifference and opposition from landed and tribal elite. "Some of the people on the top level are giving lip service to literacy," says David, a former businessman. "[But] the landlords and industrialists are not anxious to have literacy common in the country because people will ask for their rights." Pakistan flounders in a sea of illiteracy. The government acknowledges that only 26.2 percent of Pakistanis can read and write (based on the 1981 census), one of the world's most miserable education levels. Among women, a meager 16 percent are literate. And the numbers are multiplying, say education experts. As Pakistan's population of 100 million grows by 2.9 million people yearly, only about one-third are absorbed by the overburdened education system. Trapped by political instability and social backwardness, and lacking a will to change, the government has an abysmal record in tackling illiteracy, education experts say. For years, most public resources have gone to fund the bureaucracy and the powerful military, which has ruled the country for more than half of its modern history. Of what money does go to education, a disproportionate share subsidizes colleges and universities, the domain of the elite. Although Pakistan's economy has grown, because of poor funding and implementation, education has made few gains since independence from the British 44 years ago. "The whole situation in fixing priorities is topsy-turvy," says Yasmin Ehson, an education specialist with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Islamabad. "We are in the same place we were in 1947. We haven't achieved anything."

Cultural obstacles Government paralysis has left religious and cultural obstacles intact. In Muslim Pakistan, barriers of prejudice against female education, rooted in tribalism and Islamic interpretation, are especially strong. Mrs. Ehson says universal education is a tenet of Islam and the Koran, the Muslim holy book. "There are broad Koranic injunctions that education is for everyone," she says. In the traditional tribal system of Pakistan, however, women were considered property to be protected. Today, in Pakistan's uneasy environment, parents object to sending girls far to school. "The more rigid the tribes were, the less they allowed women outside," Ehson says. "At some stage, people out of ignorance mixed the sociocultural with religion." Twenty-year-old Rubina Shaffiq is the first woman in her family to receive a high school education. But her accomplishment is bittersweet. Many family members opposed the plan to educate the young woman, the oldest of seven children. But her mother prevailed, arguing that Rubina, who is crippled, needed to be able to support herself financially in case she couldn't be married. "There was a time when they thought there was no use educating girls, because all they had to do was care for the children and cook. There was very strict purdah. Girls couldn't go out," says Rubina, who now teaches part time in Rawalpindi, a city near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. "Now times are changing and girls are more aggressive in what they want and parents aren't as strict," Rubina says. Despite government inaction, the realization that education is key to breaking Pakistan's vicious cycle of poverty and social oppression is starting to percolate up from below, educators say.

Little sense of urgency David, who is the head of the Adult Basic Education Society in Gujranwala, a farming community southeast of Islamabad, first realized the burden of illiteracy 30 years ago among workers in his machine shop. When he realized these workers were being underpaid in other jobs because they could not read, he started classes to teach them numbers and how to write their names. That interest caused David to join a missionary-run literacy project in 1961, which he later took over. "There was a time when we had to go out and motivate them," says David. "Now people are easier to motivate, but they need materials relevant to their daily lives." Today, the literacy program covers 90 farming villages in Punjab, teaches more than 16,000 students yearly, and produces its own education materials, including videocassettes. UNICEF reports that fewer than 200,000 people a year take advantage of literacy programs. At that rate, the agency says, Pakistan will need two centuries to achieve universal literacy. And despite the magnitude of Pakistan's illiteracy burden, government officials agree that there is little sense of urgency in selling the benefits of reading and writing to millions of rural Pakistanis. "There is no well-thought-out national program," says Laeef Ahmad Khan, head of education planning for the government.

Declining funds One of the biggest challenges for the government is to prove the relevance of education, particularly for women. "They see no advantage in being literate. A literate woman cannot get a husband that easily in the village," Dr. Laeef says. Educators say voluntary organizations have been effective, although like government programs, they lack adequate funding to tackle the scale of the problem. Pakistan gets $1 billion yearly in foreign assistance for primary education, UNICEF says, although much of it is poorly used or never reaches the grass-roots level. This year, the country is slated to lose more than $200 million in US funding for basic education and literacy programs in the two most backward provinces, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier. The United States has suspended aid to Pakistan in protest of the country's effort to build nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, an illiterate Pakistan slips further behind the rest of the world economically, and for those who can afford it, the collapsing government education system has spawned a growing network of private schools. To provide their children the status of private education as well as better school buildings and materials, more and more parents are footing tuition bills. Rab Nawaz teaches in a government-run school in Rawalpindi. But his two children attend private school, where there are smaller classes and better facilities, he says. "There are so many students in the government schools. This school has fewer students, is neat and clean, and has more security," he says. "If they give quality education, we will pay."

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