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Someone is killing our teachers

published 12 July 2013 updated 10 February 2016
written by:

They’re on a militant hit-list. Their crime? They belong to a Pakistan teachers’ trade union, an affiliate of Education International.

At their behest – and to protect their identity – I’ve changed their names. And their photographs won’t grace this article; such is the danger that stalks teachers in this South Asian nation of 180-million people.

“Many teachers are really scared,” says Muhammad, who is aged in his mid-40’s. “They are afraid that if they continue their duties at school they may be targeted. Maybe they will be the next target.

“The government should provide some security to women teachers and to girl pupils.”

Since the advent of the “War on Terror” and relentless drone strikes on alleged Taliban militants in Pakistan’s lawless Tribal Agencies, hundreds of schools in the country have been bombed and scores of women teachers and girl pupils have been murdered or attacked with acid.

Anti-education militants claim educating women is pro-Western and against the fundamental precepts of Islam.

On March 26 this year Shahnaz Nazli, aged 41, a teacher for 24-years, was assassinated only yards from the all-girls school where she taught in the village of Shahkas in the Khyber Tribal Agency, abutting Peshawar.

And on January 1 five female primary school teachers – and two female health workers – were also gunned down by militants in the town of Swabi, around 80 kilometres (50-miles) east of Peshawar, also in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

These killings followed the now-notorious attempted assassination of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in October last year (please see main feature story).

Even without the murders and intimidation, Pakistan’s public education system – especially for young girls and women – is, and has been for some time, in crisis.

“To educate a girl means educating a family, the whole of society,” stresses Khan Sahib. “The whole family education lies with the mother. If she is not educated then it is very difficult.”

But anti-education militants “don’t want to create awareness amongst the people. They believe that (a) woman’s role is only in the home. Their power is based on ignorance. And they want to keep the people ignorant,” Muhammad explains.

Further to Taliban militancy, hundreds of schools in KP province -- and indeed throughout Pakistan -- were destroyed in the devastating 2010 floods that inundated one-fifth of the country, directly affected 20-million people and caused an estimated US$43-billion of economic damage.

Pakistan is home to more out-of-school children than almost any country in the world. Five million kids, two-thirds of them girls, are not in schooling. In 2011 a mixed public and private sector task force declared the education system to be in an “emergency”.

In one recent study of 164,000 public schools it was found that almost half of them did not even have lavatories for students. Many basic facilities, such as drinking water and electricity, were also lacking. In some cases “schools” didn’t even have a school building.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that mainstream Pakistani society is prejudiced against education. Nothing could be further from the truth – even in the socially-conservative north-western region of this beautiful country.

Even in bomb-blasted Peshawar, the first girls’ school – the Elizabeth Girls School College – was founded over 100-years-ago.

“The common man and society in general now understands that without education development is not possible,” Sardar Hussain Babak, the outgoing Minister of Education for KP province, told me in an interview soon after Pakistan’s historic May 11 elections – the first time in the history of this troubled nation that a democratic government, however flawed by corruption, passed power to another democratically-elected government.

Under fire, in the frontline in the fight for female education and emancipation, Pakistan and its courageous teachers deserve our support and solidarity.