Girls recite verses from the Qu'ran at a madrasa in Pakistan (Photo: Rebecca Conway/IRIN)
Continuing military operations in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal district are disrupting the education of more than 85,000 students in state-run schools. According to the latest report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of the start of September, 1,016,559 people are registered as displaced from North Waziristan, around 45 percent of them children.
“What would be their future without education and who should we ask for help?” father-of-three Ashraf Wazir, a displaced resident of Miramshah town in North Waziristan, told IRIN, saying that his children had been withdrawn from school in the middle of the previous academic year.
The number of enrolled students in government schools in North Waziristan was 86,323, an official at the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Secretariat in Peshawar, requesting anonymity, told IRIN, adding that 50,429 of them were primary school children. Data on those in private schools in North Waziristan could not be obtained.
The Pakistan military says it has now cleared militant groups from most parts of North Waziristan, but tribal elders say the government has not yet taken steps to allow people to return, something that has caused protests by displaced students from schools and colleges in North Waziristan.
“We, the students, are [the] worst victims among the displaced people,” said Ejazul Haq, a college student, who led the protest in Bannu on 28 August. Haq said the college students have had difficulty preparing for their annual examinations which are due next month.
The military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azab on 15 June against Taliban militant groups in North Waziristan.
During a visit to a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Bakakhel area of Bannu Frontier Region on 6 September, Pakistani Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif said North Waziristan IDPs would be allowed to return to their homes soon, according to Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistani military.
Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and has also committed to the Education for All and Millennium Development Goals, under which it aspires to place every girl and boy in school by 2015.
However, education activists say that the literacy rate in FATA is lower than all other parts of the country mainly because of Taliban militancy and resulting displacement. The rate in North Waziristan is 15.7 percent, including 26.9 percent among men and 1.5 per cent among women, according to statistics shared by the official at the FATA Secretariat.
Enrolling the displaced
The provincial authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KP), where many of the displaced have fled, have decided to admit all school- and college-going displaced youths in local schools and colleges, according to Mushtaq Ahmed Ghani, provincial minister for higher education.
The provincial education department published advertisements in local Urdu newspapers on 1 September encouraging displaced families from North Waziristan to enrol. It said formal documents or school certificates would not be mandatory for admission. “Every student will also receive 2,000 Pakistan rupees (US$200) monthly,” Ghani told IRIN. KP is already running a campaign to pay a stipend of 200 Pakistani rupees ($20) per month to increase the school enrolment rate.
Schools in KP reopened on 1 September at the end of the three-month summer vacation. The authorities have been arranging alternative accommodation for IDPs who were given shelter in state-run schools in KP districts adjacent to North Waziristan. An estimated 460 school buildings in the province were occupied by North Waziristan IDPs, media reports suggest.
However, a number of displaced families have refused to vacate the schools. “We would never reside in the camps because of our social and cultural norms,” said Haji Akbar, 45, a resident of Mir Ali, who is living in a government school in Bannu with his extended 25-member family, 18 of whom are women and children.
They occupy four of the school’s 20 rooms. “It is considered against Pashtun norms and values to live with women in a tent,” Akbar added.
A number of UN agencies and local NGOs are also setting up informal schools for the displaced children of North Waziristan.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in collaboration with the provincial education department will support the education of 9,000 IDP children (including 4,500 girls) in IDP hosting districts of the province, said a UNICEF spokesperson. A total of 1,334 displaced children, including 513 girls, have been identified and enrolled in 16 nearby government schools, and government teachers from North Waziristan have been deployed to serve in these schools. North Waziristan’s political authorities have also directed all displaced government teachers to start teaching at schools in different KP districts, especially in Bannu.
However, not all families displaced by recent fighting remained in the country, with thousands crossing over into neighbouring Afghanistan.
“The families especially who were living close to the border had opted to leave for bordering provinces of Afghanistan, especially Khost Province, because of difficulties in transportation and prolonged curfew in North Waziristan,” said Malik Ghulam Khan Madakhel, a North Waziristan tribal elder.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 75,000 people fleeing from conflict in North Waziristan have migrated to Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktika provinces.