Substance abuse, sex trade, drug-muling, neglect, exploitation, the formation of cartels and affiliation with drug mafias, begging at every intersection, swarms of street children sleeping on pavements at night, gangs of street children roaming about, abandoned by their families, creating their own argot, engaging in petty theft and prostitution, and, in extreme cases, being murdered by "clean-up squads" hired by local businesses or police, represent the ultimate destiny of Les Misérables.
These street urchins have no place to call home, forsaken and abandoned in an unforgiving environment. Population outbursts, war, natural calamities, prostitution, socio-economic disparity, and broken families are among the myriad reasons propelling children to the streets. We may opt to avert our gaze, but we cannot deny awareness of the causes of this disparity. How vigorously we choose to combat this menace is a matter of our own discretion. A fair allocation of resources towards integrating the less privileged into the mainstream economic and social scene is imperative. Notably, in the past year, 2023, an article captured my attention, wherein then PM Shehbaz Sharif pledged to enrol an estimated 70,000 children (aged 5-18) from the streets of Islamabad into schools by June 30th, 2023.
Another news article, from December 2023, highlighted President Arif Alvi's call for mosques, community spaces, and Auqaf to play a pivotal role in enrolling out-of-school children in a systematic educational plan spanning 24-30 months under the Accelerated Learning Programme model. While the plan appears sound and practical, challenges abound. With 28 million out-of-school children (OSC), a mere 2% of the total budget is allocated to the education sector, resulting in a significant 4% lag, according to UNDP reports. Education for all is a noble aspiration and a compelling slogan for human rights, governance, and politics, but the stark reality demands confrontation.
The Schools on Wheels initiative by the Government of Pakistan, supported by the World Bank's donation of 70 vehicles, including toilet facilities, is commendable. However, ensuring the proper use of these buses poses a challenge. Tele-schooling, feasible with energy resources and WiFi availability, offers limitless possibilities, yet implementation encounters its own hurdles. As the saying goes, 'ay therein lies the rub!'
Education has been prioritised by the government of Pakistan, as enshrined in the country's constitution, emphasizing the Right to Education in Article 25A: "The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children aged five to sixteen years in such a manner as may be determined by law."
Population control looms as a sword of Damocles over Pakistan's sustainable developmental plans. Affluent families curtail childbearing, while the impoverished multiply, overlooking the long-term repercussions. The United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals, to be achieved by 2030, include ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Progress toward quality education was already sluggish pre-pandemic, exacerbated by the devastating impact of COVID-19. Equal access to affordable vocational training, eliminating gender and wealth disparities, and achieving universal access to quality higher education are paramount.
Education serves as a linchpin for achieving many other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Quality education empowers individuals to break free from the shackles of poverty, reduces inequalities, and promotes gender equity. It is crucial for fostering tolerance, shaping peaceful societies, and achieving the SDGs.
Goal 4 of the SDGs underscores the need for education financing to become a national investment priority. Measures such as making education free and compulsory, ensuring skilled and updated teachers, improving basic school infrastructure, and embracing digital transformation are vital. Pakistan faces educational challenges, ranking low globally with the lowest rate of girls' education—58% of females are uneducated, contributing to a pervasive learning poverty. The need for a paradigm shift in the education sector is evident.
Understanding the causes and effects of OSC is crucial before integrating them into regular schooling. Poverty stands as the fundamental cause, and alleviation, equitable resource allocation, quality health services, and equal economic opportunities are foundational for societal development. Effective and persistent counselling of both territorial leaders and urchins is the initial step toward fostering independent thought processes and igniting the desire for education.
Practical involvement through massive awareness campaigns for OSC is essential. Educating them on health risks, sanitation, self-defence, protection from drug abuse, and awareness of sex and violence proves more beneficial. Basic laws and rules of the country need to be imparted, emphasizing self-determination.
Capacity building, providing skill-based education, and breaking stereotypical learning norms are crucial for these individuals. Government focus on creating job markets and integrating street children into the mainstream socio-economic sector aligns with the primary purpose of education. Recognizing that the aspirations of street children and their mentors may differ from those already enrolled, provision for social services and welfare is vital.
While existing educational facilities in Pakistan's main cities could alleviate learning poverty with easy access and maintained scholarly standards, specific needs-based curricula and assessment plans for OSC are essential. The Government of Pakistan must mobilise resources and implement vigilance, planning both short and long term to maximise available resources.
Ismaili communities across Pakistan conduct evening classes for the less privileged in the socio-economic strata, prioritising proficiency in English for better integration at national and international levels. Inspirational figures like Master Ayub and philanthropic initiatives such as 'Zindagi Trust' underscore the need for collaborative efforts to address poverty, lack of opportunities, and the challenges faced by OSC. Vocational institutes play a significant role in imparting practical knowledge, contributing to prosperity.
These out-of-school individuals cannot be expected to generate the same learning outcomes and goal orientation as their enrolled counterparts. Continued counselling and mentoring are required for their long-term transformation. The creation of a job market, along with equal and equitable opportunities, is crucial for inclusive education. Need-based subjects and skill development should be prioritised, with a focus on awareness, openness, pluralism, and practical knowledge. Proportional social security and services should be fairly allocated to support students who fall out of the education system.
With nearly 28 million children on the streets unable to access formal education in Pakistan: "Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination" - as Vin Scully put it.
Understanding the catastrophic nature of the situation through numbers can serve as a catalyst for change.
It's 'Now or Never'!