ISLAMABAD, Pakistan— Pakistan’s education system is facing an eerie enemy, in the rising phenomenon of ‘ghost schools.’ An incursion of Taliban attacks in recent years has left an unknown number of schools damaged and non-functioning. While these schools lack teachers willing to run them, they are still receiving funding, most likely because the government is simply not aware that they have been damaged.
Although the statistics are speculative, since these ghost schools are as nebulous as their name, an estimated 7,000 abandoned institutions are spread throughout Pakistan’s countryside. The majority lie in the northwestern Sindh region, near the border of Afghanistan where the Taliban is particularly active. A total of 20% of existent schools are no longer functioning.
According to UNICEF, ghost schools are currently hindering roughly five million children and the long-term effects are even more profound. Citizens everywhere are expressing worry about the new generation and the possibility of it growing up without an education, optimal job prospects and common cultural knowledge.
To quote Kazoo Samoon, a villager in the Sindh town Chancher Redhar, “These kids of ours, they don’t know anything. They don’t know the meaning of their names, they don’t know the basics, they know nothing.”
Furthermore, as attacks against schools have increased in prevalence, the value of an education has diminished in the mindsets of families and communities. Frightened parents are afraid to send their children to school for fear their children, like other children and famous female activist Malala Yousafzai who have been casualties of school attacks, will become targets of the Taliban.
Students who do brave school are met with empty or demolished schoolhouses. Teachers, especially female teachers, have fled the dangerous conditions, leaving the older children in charge of their peers. Broken furniture and a lack of electricity makes education even harder.
After the Taliban, the government, which denies the ghost school issue and refuses to take measures to eradicate it, is the biggest danger for these children in Pakistan. A thriving textile industry in areas where ghost schools are prevalent makes the government reluctant to facilitate anything that would discourage a larger and younger work force.
Similar motivations are expressed by the landowning elite, who control a surprising degree of Pakistan’s education system. Public schools are mostly established on donated land, as part of the still very much intact feudal system. Without their awareness and support, ghost schools will likely not be re-established.
Many critics claim education is not politicized enough as a topic of discussion in Parliament, rendering the problem of ghost schools completely invisible. Local activist and chairman of the Sindh Rural Development Society Rahmatullah Balal has made it his priority to bring political and social attention to the issue,through his network of over 40 grassroots organizations.
In January 2013, Balal took his argument to Pakistan’s Supreme Court and presented evidence of ghost schools there. So far, the Pakistani government has made amendments to ensure that funded schools actually exist, but no action to restore their function has been made. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is on Balal’s side, however, and he has promised to support his civilians’ constitutional right to an education.
– Stefanie Doucette