Peshawar: Madina Shah, 9, lives in village Uchat in the tribal area of Lower Kurram Agency. She gave up education after primary school because there is no middle school for girls in her village.

“I was a position holder in my class,” says Shah told Truth Tracker. “But I couldn’t continue studies after primary school because I cannot access a middle school.”

In absence of a local middle school in her village, girls have to travel to another village to attend the school there. This, says Shah, is not acceptable to her parents and those of other girls from the village. Tribal traditions that put much stock in purdah and honour do not favour exposure and mobility of women and girls outside their families and villages.

Besides local socio-cultural obstacles, security concerns also get in the way of female education in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where militants have targeted girl schools in recent years.

Kurram Agency where Madina Shah lives has seen some of the worst incidents of sectarian conflict in recent years, deepening the divide between the local population along the mutually hostile Shia and Sunni lines.

Sharif Ul Nissa, a 12 year old student from the village of Bagan in Lower Kurram Agency left studies after middle school because her village has no high school for girls. Other villages that do have one are far from theirs, says Nissa, who wants to continue studies but cannot. “My parents do not feel secure sending me out of village alone to attend school elsewhere,” she says. “There are scores of girls who give up education due to long distances to schools. The government high schools are in Sadda and Alizai that fall in the Shia areas. Parents are afraid of sending their daughters to study in these areas due to the conflict between Shia and Sunni communities.”

Nissa said the government should build high schools in Bagan, her village.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by Shaoor Foundation for Education and Awareness (SFEA), a non-government organization that works on girls’ education, FATA’s population is estimated to be 3.69 million, of which the female population is 1.52 million. Of this, 14.7 per cent of girls between ages 3 to 13 have never been enrolled in any school. The overall school enrolment for FATA’s schools stand at 27 per cent for girls and 73 per cent for boys. “A subsequent decrease was observed in the transition of female students from primary to higher secondary levels from 33 per cent to 13 per cent – the lowest in the country,” says the study.

Muhammad Asghar, who lives in the Central Kurram Agency, says he wish he could send his daughters to a school but they are situated a long distance from his village. “In Kurram agency, people have family feuds and enmities and they cannot freely send their daughters away from home,” Asghar told Truth Tracker. “There are no proper transport facilities and security at schools for girls, which is why girls can’t go to schools other than those in their villages.”

He says there was no high school for girls in Central Kurram spread over 250 km, 22 primary schools and only 9 middle schools.

“All of these schools are situated in a way that they leave out several villages without any middle schools,” says Asghar. “This leaves many girls without any access to middle schools and due to distances and poverty, parents stop sending their daughters to schools.”

Former Additional Agency Educational Officer and a senior government teacher, Haji Maeen Gul, said girls from poor families had access to higher secondary schools in Kurram Agency and elsewhere in FATA.

“Those who are financially strong, send their boys and girls to Peshawar for further studies. I have also sent my daughters to Peshawar for higher education. If the government facilitates us by building schools for girls in our own villages and towns, most of the girls will continue education and serve their communities.”

He said there was not a single high school in several villages of Lower Kurram including Bagan, Manduri, Chapri, Uchat, Doll Ragha, Lanha, Poloseen, Pastawana, Chinarak and Manatoo. “In these areas, many girls give up studies every year because of the distances between schools and villages.”

According to Article 37 of Constitution of Pakistan, it is the responsibility of the state to provide compulsory and free education to all citizens of Pakistan. The 2013-2014 annual statistical report of the Directorate of Education in FATA says the government policy regarding the distance between schools and hometown should be 1.5km.

Managing Director of Bacha Khan Education Trust, Khadam Hussain, said the capacity of Education Department in FATA Secretariat was low and there was no policy as such for education in FATA because of bad governance.

“Access to schools is difficult and distances between schools great,” Hussain TOLD TRUTH TRACKER. “Due to hilly areas, parents feel insecure and stop sending their daughter to distant schools. It is the responsibility of FATA secretariat to provide schools according to the population of the area. If in the village there are more than 200 to 250 children, there should be a primary school. In villages where there are more 500 children, there should be one middle, secondary and high school.”

If schools are developed according to the population of a particular area, he said, the distance between homes to school would be greatly reduced, girls would start going to schools and the literacy rate in FATA would improve.

“Mostly girls join madrassahs [religious seminaries] because they are close to their homes and can be easily accessed,” says Hussain. “In madrassas, education is free for children and students learn basic reading and writing.”

Meanwhile, Madina Shah, the student from Lower Kurram has started going to a madrassah in her village after finishing primary school. “I feel very sad when I see some of my friends from rich families go to schools and continue studies,” she said. Religious studies are important but modern education is also necessary for our times.”

Shah hopes her family would move to a village with accessible schools. “A middle school exists in Manduri but it is far from my village Uchat and I can’t go there alone because my family doesn’t allow me.”

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