By Zubeida Mustafa
LAST week the Indus Resource Centre (IRC) and the Sindh Education Foundation held a joint consultative roundtable — the second such event in a series — to study the impact of the Sindh Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2013.
The project funded by UKAID and DAI Europe seeks to mobilise schoolchildren to create a visible demand for education.
This consultative process has proved to be an instructive exercise and holds great promise, provided the IRC’s strategy remains judicious and does not succumb to ill-considered demands by the financiers. Ideally, education projects should be indigenously funded to ensure local discretion to determine strategy. But this is not always possible given resource constraints.
Initially, the IRC held a baseline survey in eight districts of Sindh. Called ‘It’s my right, make it happen’, the survey found that barely 2pc of the respondents knew about the right to education (RTE) law. Even the functionaries of the education department lacked awareness of the act passed in February 2013.
This would not have surprised me but for the fact that recently Shahzad Roy, a pop singer and the darling of the youth, had cycled around Pakistan advocating the cause of education. He was featured in a programme titled Chal parha by a TV channel said to be the most influential in Pakistan.
One would have thought that this exercise by Shahzad Roy would have created more understanding of the issues that have proved to be obstacles in the spread of education. Unfortunately, this did not happen.
Apart from the law against corporal punishment, which was enacted after Roy highlighted the problem, nothing much has changed. And the law notwithstanding, corporal punishment has continued with the same frequency as before. The IRC’s survey confirms it.
This should explode the myth that the media is the magic wand that can blow away all our problems. Education needs a serious approach to understand the obstacles in the way of progress. The crisis in education will not be solved by gimmicks. Yet many NGOs and think tanks have been led into believing that without the support of the media nothing can be achieved.
Since we are a society where illiteracy is accepted unabashedly as a way of life, it is believed that only the electronic media can take the message to the common man.
Even the IRC project’s sponsors speak of “engaging with media to highlight campaign activities and promote awareness about the Sindh RTE law”.
It is time we realised that the electronic media has a role to play only when there is advocacy to be done to create social acceptance of an idea that is new and is meeting resistance from the public.
Those working on the ground and various surveys have conclusively established that the advocacy campaigns of the earlier decades have created acceptance of new values. Only a minuscule minority now resists them and obstructs the process of social change. The next step after raising awareness is creating the infrastructure which obviously cannot be done by the electronic media. It calls for a carefully thought-out strategy of capacity-building and interpersonal communication to persuade people to go the extra mile to achieve results.
This second phase cannot be handled by the electronic media which itself ‘creates’ many problems and then offers itself as the redeemer. Thus foreign financiers who fall into this trap spend millions paying media houses to carry on campaigns that achieve nothing.
Education and population are the most vulnerable sectors in this context. Televised campaigns on these issues give the impression that education and family planning programmes are failing because the people are dead against limiting their family size or sending their children to school.
Surveys on the ground have a different story to tell. The Population Council’s latest factsheet says that there is an unmet need of 25pc. In other words, eight million women want family planning services but don’t get them.
As for religion being a factor in keeping couples away from birth control methods, the Demographic and Health Survey showed that a very small ratio of respondents said that it was religion that held them back from family planning. Yet some very ‘popular’ anchors harp on the theme when it should be left alone.
Similarly, the IRC’s baseline survey reports that most parents and children cite the heavy cost of schooling, the students’ fear of teachers and the irregular attendance of teachers as the cause of high dropout rates. Will media programmes rectify these ills? Or will administrative measures produce better results?
The IRC plans to hold one-to-one briefing exercises with the stakeholders, ie political party representatives, policymakers, functionaries of the education department and even community leaders. That is a more sensible approach rather than turning the project into a media circus which is only counterproductive.