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Pakistan's education crisis: What ever happened to Malala's friends?

Almost half a year after Malala Yousafzai was attacked on her school bus, the two girls injured alongside her also symbolize Pakistan's uphill battle with girls' education. 

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Indian schoolgirls wear masks of Malala Yousufzai, a 16-year-old girl who was shot at close range in the head by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan, during a campaign to demand better budgetary allocation for health and education of Indian children in New Delhi, India, last month.

Altaf Qadri/AP

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When 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot point-blank on her school bus in October for her vocal support of girls' education in Pakistan, it provoked an outcry in Pakistan and around the globe, but it also changed the lives of the two girls sitting next to her on that bus. 

Almost half a year after the Taliban attack, the two girls injured alongside Malala struggle to deal with the not-so-pleasant notoriety that came with being associated with the young female education activist. 

Kainat Riaz, 16, and Shazia Ramzan, 14, were squeezed on either side of Malala on the bench of the school bus when a Taliban gunman boarded the bus and shot the teenage activist. Malala was shot in the head and neck. Kainat was shot through her upper right arm and required four stitches. Shazia was injured in her left hand and shoulder.

The attack made Malala an international symbol of the many lives claimed by the violent extremism that plagues Pakistan and highlighted the country's education crisis.  

“There won’t be any progress until there is across-the-board political consensus to address Pakistan’s education crisis,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, director of Alif Ailaan, a recently-launched campaign focused on improving education in Pakistan, and former adviser to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry.

There are 12 million school-age children in Pakistan who have never been to school, two-thirds of whom are girls. Many view Pakistan’s education crisis through the prism of deep-rooted cultural hostility toward educating girls – an analysis that is at best an oversimplification.

In the past 40 years, there has been a huge expansion of private schools in Pakistan. In the 1970s, barely 1 percent of schools were private, says Mr. Zaidi. Today over a third of all children attend private schools, a statistic that reveals the huge appetite for education in Pakistan.

But the quality of education remains low, and there is also a simple shortage of girls' schools, says Anwar Saifullah Khan, president of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Malala’s home province. In Pakistan, boys and girls generally attend separate schools.

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According to Mr. Saifullah Khan, only 8 to 10 percent of school-age girls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are enrolled in full-time education, while half of all boys are. The federal government also spends less than 3 percent of gross domestic product on education, placing Pakistan in the bottom eight countries in the world for per capita spending on education.

Security is also an issue, and it often prevents parents from sending their daughters to school, says Saifullah Khan.

Before and after the incident

Both Kainat and Shazia returned to school two months after the attack, but their movements are severely restricted by the police guards the provincial government has provided to them for their protection.

“Before, I was a normal girl,” says Kainat. “I was totally free. Now I am afraid to go out and can’t go anywhere freely.” Outside the front door of Kainat’s home, three police officers stand guard. Another two guard the alley that runs along the back of the family home.

Kainat’s father, Riaz Ahmad, a primary school teacher in Amankot, a village on the edge of Mingora, says he varies his route to work because he has been warned that he, too, has become a target.

On Dec. 4, 2012, a blast in Kainat’s neighborhood killed one woman and injured another six. The police said that the blast was caused by a gas leak, but many in the community believed that it was a targeted attack aimed at Kainat.

“After the blast, the neighbors said that it was because of me and told my father we had to move,” says Kainat. “They said that I would attract more attacks.”

Shazia lives on the other side of the city of Mingora, down a narrow alley behind Gulshan Chowk, a local marketplace, where her father runs a small bakery. She says that local residents also told her father that the family had to move because Shazia posed a threat to the whole community.

Neither family has moved, and Mingora has been relatively peaceful since the October attack. The Pakistani Army has maintained tight control over the area since a 2009 operation to purge the Taliban from the region, which had become their stronghold. The endless roadblocks manned by heavily armed soldiers serve as a constant reminder of military’s presence.

While security has improved, the national dialogue to improve education in Pakistan – and girls' enrollment – has stagnated.

In April 2010, a little more than two years before the attack on Malala, the National Assembly, Pakistan’s main legislative body, passed a constitutional amendment making state-funded education a right for all children from the age of 5 to 16. Still, a deeper rethink at the policy level did not follow the amendment.

'Teachers need to be taught to teach'

Saifullah Khan says that a lack of accountability is the biggest challenge. There are no mechanisms in place to ensure that teachers in state-funded schools turn up each day, he says. This is less of a problem at private schools as it is easier for the parent companies to maintain oversight over their network of schools, but at both private and state schools there are no set standards to which teachers and their students are held.

“Teachers simply need to be taught to teach,” says Saifullah Khan.

The Alif Ailaan campaign recently launched by Zaidi aims to rekindle the education debate in Pakistan by bringing together policymakers, teachers, parents, and students. Central to the campaign’s manifesto is passing legislation to implement the 2010 constitutional amendment.

Its ambitious goal is to achieve meaningful progress within 100 days of general elections, set for May. It is currently lobbying all the political parties to endorse its 12-point manifesto.

Both Kainat and Shazia say that they are very proud that Malala has been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize. But, when asked about changes that might positively impact their lives, Kainat says that she doesn’t see a way to change the current situation.

Still, her ambition and desire for education has not been quashed. Kainat is about to take her final exams, and hopes to go to college in the fall. She wants to become a doctor, and her father has said that he will find a way to pay for her to continue her studies.

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