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2006 | 62nd Regular Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights (16 January 2006)

The right to education in Pakistan

13 March – 21 April 2006
Palais des Nations, Geneva

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

2. (e) The development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued, an adequate fellowship system shall be established and the material conditions of teaching staff shall be continuously improved.

Article 37 (b) & (c) of the Constitution of Pakistan (1973) affirms that “the State shall remove illiteracy and provide free and compulsory secondary education within minimum possible period; make technical and professional education generally available and higher education equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

However the education policies adopted by successive governments have not implemented these constitutional guarantees or the international human rights standards on education. A wide range of policy, budgetary and administrative constraints have held back any significant progress, and as a result, the country lags behind in literacy and standards of education.

More than 50 million people over the age of 10 remain illiterate. The country’s literacy rate is just over 54%, 66.25% for men and 41.75% for women; however, unofficial estimates suggest that functional literacy is actually just over 35%. (HRCP, annual report 2004)

Public spending on education as a percentage of overall government expenditure has remained very low in Pakistan, 1.8% of GDP, well below prescribed international levels (which range from the 20% recommended by UNICEF to 6%, as laid down by the Dakar Framework of Action at the World Educational Forum 2000). This amount is the lowest in South Asia. Pakistan is among the 12 countries in the world that spent less than 2% of their GDP on education. (HRCP annual report 2005)

Education clearly remains a low priority. In fact, public spending on education declined from 2.6% of the GDP in 1990 to 1.8% in 2002-03.

Poor conditions at educational institutions

According to official statistics, in 2004 there were 156,000 educational institutions at the primary level in the public and private sector, 28,716 middle schools and 16,059 high schools. This indicated an increase of 5.7, 12.7 and 8.6 per cent, respectively, over the past five years. (HRCP, annual report 2005).

However, primary schools continued to lack basic physical infrastructure, furniture, and proper facilities; and teaching staff remained minimal. This has contributed greatly to the high drop-out rate. Parents were not interested in sending their children to schools where teachers often failed to appear, fans or drinking water were not available and children were often subjected to corporal punishment.

According to official data, 78% of primary schools in rural areas did not have electricity, 40% lacked drinking water facilities, and 60% were without toilets. The same was true for middle, high and secondary schools. Fifteen per cent of government schools across the country were without buildings, 52% without boundary walls, 40% without water, 71% without electricity and 57% without toilets (HRCP annual report).

Higher education gained a significantly larger slice of the education budget in recent years; however, the declining standards of education, violence on campuses and limited resource availability for research continue to adversely affect college and university students. At least two universities (Punjab and Bolan), as well as the Federal Ministry of Education, are headed by retired military officers.

Problems in the curriculum

Research conducted in 2003 by Dr. A.H. Nayyar and Mr. Ahmed Salim of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute – Islamabad identified the following problems with curricula (The state of curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan, page 5,):
• Inaccuracies in fact and omissions that serve to substantially distort the nature and significance of actual events in history,
• Insensitivity to religious diversity,
• Incitement to militancy and violence, including encouraging Jihad and Shahadat (martyrdom),
• Perspectives that encourage prejudice, bigotry and discrimination toward fellow citizens, especially women and religious minorities, and toward other nations,
• A glorification of war and the use of force,
• Omission of concepts, events and material that might encourage critical-self awareness among students,
• Outdated and incoherent pedagogical practices that hinder the development of interest and insight among students.

The present government promised to update the curriculum to eliminate blatant discrimination based on gender and religion but, in reality, there were no substantial changes:

a) The Arabic language, which is not spoken in any part of Pakistan, continues to be an essential part of the syllabus,
b) Islamic Studies is a compulsory subject from class one to degree classes, without any arrangement made for non-Muslim students for religious instruction in their own faith.
c) In admission for higher education, candidates claiming to have memorized the Holy Quran are entitled to 20 extra marks.
d) Chapters on Islam are part of subject materials in history, social studies and languages. Non-Muslim students are also obliged to study them.

Millennium Development Goals and reality on the ground

The present government embarked on the Education Sector Reform Action Plan. The administration supported the establishment of the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) which took over responsibility for education. The Education for All targets included 86% literacy by 2015, and 100% enrollment for children aged between five and seven years.

A lavishly advertised mass literacy campaign as part of the education sector reforms was launched by the Provincial government of Punjab, which claimed an increase in enrolment, however there is no corresponding evidence that the drop-out rate has fallen with this programme. The question of quality of education has yet to be addressed. The same is true for NCHD initiatives in various districts of the country. As a result, Pakistan remains one of the 28 countries at risk of failing to achieve these goals.


Education reform should change the structure and content of syllabi, decision-making as well as implementation. This process will require clear standards to measure progress and an independent observer to keep reforms on track and deal with the inevitable difficulties that will arise from such an effort.

The following fundamental reforms are urgently required to ensure the right to education for all people of Pakistan, as enshrined in Article 13 of the ICESCR:

• Priority needs to be given to education to reach the MDGs. As an initial step, funding must be enhanced to at least the minimum of 20% of GNP, as recommended by UNESCO. The right to education needs to be acknowledged and recognised by the State, who has the primary responsibility of implementing it.

• Expenditures on non-productive sectors such as defense must be diverted to the education sector.

• Better physical conditions, including the state of buildings and the provision of basic facilities, must be ensured.

The curricula and textbooks should be guided by the following principles:

• Falsehoods, distortions and omissions concerning Pakistan’s national history need to be replaced by event accounts that are supported by well-respected scholars,

• The encouragement or justification of discrimination against women, religious and ethnic minorities, and against other nations should be replaced with the positive values of social equality, mutual respect and responsibility, justice and peace,

• Arbitrary, incoherent or inconsistent curricula and other pedagogical problems must be replaced by a systematic set of scientific ideas about history, geography, society and identity, all based on well-established academic disciplines,

• The education system will have to be protected from any preference for one religion over the others in syllabi, or in the form of incentives (extra marks on the basis of religious learning), that are discriminatory in nature and practice.

Background information

Pakistan called its first national educational conference in 1947. Among the three priority issues, the foremost was to have an educational system that was inspired by Islamic ideology. Within a decade, the civil bureaucracy and the military emerged as the most powerful interest groups in the government, resulting in a centralized policymaking structure, and a system of resource allocation to education and health. Barely four per cent of GDP was allocated annually for education, health and the social sectors.

A National Commission for Education was established in 1959; the Commission’s report was adopted as the National Education Policy. Responsibility for primary education was transferred to provincial governments. During the second 5-year plan (1960-65), primary and secondary curricula were revised, and much emphasis was placed on Islamic studies and religious education. Promised financial allocations were severely cut due to the 1965 war with India. The New Education Policy (1969) aimed at minimizing the wide gap between the traditional madrassah system and the general system of education.

During the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto period, educational policy, planning, curricula and syllabi, centres of excellence and Islamic education were placed on the concurrent legislative list (shared legislative powers between national and provincial assemblies), an effective decentralisation of the sector.

In 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq called a national education conference to redefine the aims of education. Under the new policy, Islamiat (Islamic studies) was made compulsory at all levels of education up to BA, teaching of Arabic was made compulsory in all schools to students of all religions, and great emphasis was placed on Pakistan ideology. Madrassah education was also encouraged, as madrassah certificates were declared to be equivalent to normal university degrees.

Following the restoration of democracy in 1988, the two major political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples Party, ruled alternatively – twice each – until the 1999 military coup of General Pervaiz Musharaf. The two had different levels of commitment to the Islamization process initiated by Zia-ul-Haq, and hence held different perspectives on the role and utility of doctrinal contents in curricula. The Muslim League was firmly in favour of the Islamiat agenda. It was about to bring in a constitutional amendment for the imposition of Islamic Shariah before it was thwarted by the military coup in 1999.

Although Benazir Bhutto’s government (Pakistan Peoples Party) was less committed to Islamization, attempts to undo the ideological content of education during her two tenures were neither well organised, given high priority, or subject to scrutiny. It seems that the Islamist groups within the educational bureaucracy were able to successfully resist such attempts.

The military government of General Pervaiz Musharaf embarked on an ambitious plan to reform the education sector following his proclamation against religious extremism. An Education Sector Reform Action Plan was prepared, seeking to reform all of the educational sectors. However, the ESR Action Plan acknowledges that it is “cast in the long-term perspective of the 1998-2010 National Education Policy” created by the Nawaz Sharif (Pakistan Muslim League) government.

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