Pakistani Government Closing Schools Amid Increased Attacks


PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct 26 (IPS) -- Tiny Spogmay, a Grade 1 student in one of the biggest schools in the violence-wracked North West Frontier Province (NWFP), is deeply disturbed by the government’s decision to shut down educational institutions all over the country in the wake of renewed terrorist attacks, forcing her to stay home.

"Why did the government close the schools?" she asked.

The government’s decision last week to shut all schools came soon after the twin suicide bombings at the International Islamic University in the federal capital on Oct. 20.

"I want to study," declared Spogmay, saying she feels "bored at home." The seven-year-old pupil at the University Model School (UMS) in NWFP is one of millions of students in the country who have been forced to stay home since their schools temporarily ceased operations.

The NWFP is adjacent to the South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), where the Pakistan army has launched full-fledged operations against militant groups, notably the Taliban. Approximately 25,000 schools were closed by the provincial government as a result of the resurgence of deadly attacks in the country.

In 2001 the Taliban came to the FATA after they were forced to flee Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, by the U.S.-led forces. From there they began sneaking into the NWFP, where they have since sown terror.

Gul Ghutai, a fourth grader at UMS, is just as dismayed by the forced closure of her school, complaining it is getting in the way of her dream of becoming a doctor. "I want to take care of my fellow women," she said of her aspiration. She decried "government’s habit of shutting the schools at the slightest threats."

Bilal Ahmed, a first-year medical student in Khyber Medical College in Peshawar, appears just as perturbed by the state’s directive. He said it has forced his school to cancel a scheduled examination. "We have been studying for the exams for the past two months," he said. "Such cancellation is only destroying our future."

Arbab Khan Afridi, president of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association -- an elected body of all university and college teachers in the country -- expressed concern that the decision to temporarily close the schools has affected more than 50 million students in the country.

"The government should provide protection to the educational institutes instead of closing them," Khan told IPS in a telephone interview from Islamabad. He worries that such a situation would not only unduly delay the students’ education but could also have psychological impacts on them. They could get terrorized by such a decision, he said.

But Interior Minister Rehman Malik defended the government’s action, saying schools could be targeted by the militants in the new spate of attacks in the strife-torn areas of Pakistan. But it appears this is already happening with the bombing of the International Islamic University last week.

"Militants are on the run. We have defeated them in Swat and they would face a similar fate in South Waziristan," said Malik, speaking to IPS by phone. The Taliban are now desperate to strike everywhere to create an atmosphere of panic, he added.

On Tuesday last week, two bombs were defused by the bomb disposal squad of the military near a Government Girls High School in Arbab Landi village in Peshawar.

"We had received threatening letters from militants demanding that co-education be stopped immediately, otherwise they "would bomb the university’," said a university official, who declined to be named for his own security.

Apart Swat, suspected militants have razed to the ground 377 schools, mostly girls’, in other areas in NWFP and FATA, such as Darra Adamkhel, Kohat, Peshawar, Charsadda, Orakzai Agency since early 2007.

Between 2007 and March 2009 alone, a total 188 exclusive schools for girls and 97 for boys were destroyed by the Taliban in Swat, displacing some 500,000 students, said Swat district education officer Kameen Khan.

The restrictions strictly imposed on women by the Taliban could explain why more girls’ schools have been destroyed compared to those for boys’. Gul Jehan, the principal of the Government Girls High School in Mardan, a city in NWFP, said that prior to the closure of the schools, her students -- under threat of severe punishment by the local militants -- were forced to wear ‘burqa’, the traditional garment women in some Islamic societies wear that covers them from head to foot.

"On Oct. 1, a student spotted a plastic shopping bag stuffed with explosives near the school. The accompanying letter contained a warning that the students would be punished if they did not wear ‘burqas’," she told IPS. Since then, about 800 girls in the school started coming to school clad in this traditional clothing, she said.

In an interview with IPS in March this year, Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan had intimated why girls’ schools were a prime target of his militant group. "Female education is against Islam. They (women and girls) are required to sit at home and not venture out," he said. Khan was arrested five months later.

NWFP education minister Sardar Hussain Babak estimates that reconstructing the damaged schools could cost 200 million U.S. dollars, adding that the government will need the help of the international community to meet this enormous amount.

But while many students want their schools to continue operating amid constant threats of militant attacks, some parents appear to be of two minds about the situation.

"I don’t like the idea of closing the schools because it severely affects the students’ education, but I also cannot allow my three kids to continue going to school in this kind of situation," said Aziz-ur-Rehman, a father of three.

Ishaq Ali, an educator, said that with a literacy rate of 52.79 percent in this South Asian country of approximately 160 million people, it would be extremely difficult for Pakistan to catch up with the developed world in the area of education if the conditions remained the same. "Education is my passion, and I want it at any cost," declared Omar Hussain, a student at the 6,000-strong Islamia College in Peshawar.

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