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Children’s rights matter

If there is one single solution to most of our woes, it will definitely be quality education, especially at the school level. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) took up this issue once again at an event in Islamabad, held a month back.

With speakers such as Dr A H Nayyar, Harris Khalique, Nasreen Azhar, Senator Sehar Kamran and Zehra Arshad, the event’s participants discussed ways to uphold children’s right to education in Pakistan.

Dr A H Nayyar is a preeminent educationist and crusader for quality education. During the event, he highlighted that 13 years have passed since the 18th Amendment that inserted Article 25A into the constitution, guaranteeing compulsory education to children aged between five and 16, and yet the situation has not changed much.

Article 25A says: “the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.”

Here the problem appears to be in the last few words, “in such manner as may be determined by law”. The wording is vague and has afforded a lot of leeway to successive governments in the last 13 years to not implement this fundamental right – as they say – ‘in letter and spirit’.

Interestingly, it took nearly seven years for all the provinces to pass their provincial acts to outline children’s right to education in their respective jurisdictions. Dr Nayyar appreciated that it was the National Assembly under the PPP government that passed the first area-specific law, ‘ICT: Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2012’.

Sindh was the first province to enact ‘The Sindh Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2013, (Sindh Act No. XIV of 2013)’. So the PPP has a unique distinction of not only introducing the 18th Amendment but also passing the ICT and Sindh Acts as well. Soon after, the PML-N and the National Party coalition government in Balochistan passed ‘The Balochistan Compulsory Education Act, 2014, (Act No V of 2014) and the PML-N government in Punjab approved ‘The Punjab Free and Compulsory Education Act 2014, (Act No XXVI of 2014).

The PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) was the most sluggish in this matter and could pass the law, after a considerable delay, in 2017 as the ‘Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Free Compulsory Primary and Secondary Education Act, 2017’, (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Act XII of 2017).

Dr Nayyar presented an overview of all the provincial laws as all of them talk about providing free education to every child and ensuring compulsory admission and attendance to complete school education. Some laws also want to ensure that the disadvantaged child is not discriminated against and prevented from pursuing and completing education.

But no federal and provincial right to education law mentions that the government will ensure that no child labour takes place in the country. Another problem is the provision of free textbooks that most of the provincial governments are not fulfilling in a timely manner. These books are either not printed in enough numbers or printed too late – after the start of the academic year. Then, the content and quality of these books is also a matter of concern as too much religiosity has been inserted especially under the guise of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) that the PTI government initiated and the PML-N-led coalition government continued under a different name.

Dr Nayyar appreciated the role of education foundations that mostly support rural schools to bring out-of-school children to schools. According to Unesco data, there are nearly three million out-of-school children in the country. That makes nearly 45 per cent of the entire school-age group that ought to be receiving education.

Data by the National Educational Management Information System (NEMIS) mentions 20 million out-of-school children; this number makes 32 per cent of the total number of the school-age group. Girls are much more likely to be out of school as 37 per cent of school-age girls do not go to school whereas among boys, this percentage is 27 per cent.

Roughly speaking, every third girl and every fourth boy of schoolgoing age is not attending school in Pakistan. The highest percentage is in Balochistan where as many as 47 per cent of children are out of school; this means nearly half of the school age population is not receiving formal education.

Balochistan is the largest province area wise in the country and a province rich in natural resources that the country has used for over seven decades. Not far behind is Sindh where 44 per cent children of school age are out of school. One can’t blame Gen Zia or Gen Musharraf for this as the PPP has ruled over Sindh for 15 years (including its recently ended tenure).

Another speaker Zehra Arshad who is the executive director of Society for Access to Quality Education (SAQE) was more detailed and incisive in her presentation . She talked about Sustainable Development Goal 4 to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. She highlighted that education must be inclusive and equitable, the two qualities that the education system is lacking in Pakistan.

She demanded that lifelong learning opportunities must also be a fundamental right and mentioned that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says “everyone has the right to education at least in the elementary and fundamental stages that needs to be compulsory and free.”

Zehra Arshad was also concerned about a general lack of technical and professional education opportunities that Pakistani youth direly need. She specifically mentioned the transgender community as being marginalized in educational opportunities at all levels. Even after 76 years of independence, Pakistan’s literacy rate still hovers around just 60 per cent, which means four out of 10 citizens of Pakistan cannot read and write while a similar number is also food insecure.

With a 35 per cent population below the age of 14, the country needs massive intervention in its human development, and this looks hard to come by in the near future.

Senator Sehar Kamran was more ambitious in her recommendation when she suggested that the maximum age for compulsory and free education must be at least 18 years in Article 25A of the constitution. That means the state must take up the responsibility to provide up to college-level education free to its children and youth.

She also suggested that the state must eliminate all gender-based discriminations against girls’ education that use cultural mores or security concerns as excuses to deprive girls of education. Civil society and non-governmental organizations could play a major role in promoting education, and Senator Sehar Kamran was in favour of allowing them free space in the country.

General-secretary of the HRCP Harris Khalique reminded the audience that our neighbouring countries such as India have been able to sign dozens of agreements with developed nations, including the US, only because it focused on education and scientific and technological cooperation. Successive governments in Pakistan have not been able to capitalize on such opportunities. Even low-income countries like Lesotho have good education indicators as they spend a substantial amount as percentage of their GDP on education of their children.

It is unfortunate that despite the consistent clamouring from civil society for the state to take education seriously, no major efforts are in sight to ensure that the right to education per Article 25A will get serious attention.

With millions of children out of school and the ever-increasing inflation and poverty, there is likely to be even more rampant child labour in the country. Seventy-six years is a fairly long span to educate the nation, instead we have focused more on an anti-people agenda that has left this nation in doldrums.

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "Children’s rights matter," The News. 2023-09-18.
Keywords: Social sciences , Civil society , Human rights , Education , Jurisdictions , Harris Khalique , Sehar Kamran , Pakistan , HECP , PPP