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Education the first casualty in Swat

School's in Pakistan's remote Swat Valley are now feeling the pressure following a fresh wave of fighting between security forces and extremist elements in the west of the country.
(Zofeen Ebrahim/IRIN)

Teachers and educators working in Pakistan’s Swat valley have expressed concern over growing insecurity in the area, after a fresh round of violence hit the once idyllic valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). 
[Read this report in Arabic]

“If this situation continues, it is going to have an adverse effect on education,” Mohammad Iqbal, principal of the Degree College for Boys, in Mingora, the largest city in Swat district, along the banks of the River Swat, about 2km from Saidu Sharif, the capital, told IRIN.
His comments followed a massive bomb attack against a security forces convoy near Mingora on 25 October, in which as many as 30 people were killed, mostly members of the security forces, and one day after 2,500 troops were deployed to the area. Scores of people were injured, many civilians.
The attack was the latest in a wave of strikes targeting the military since government troops stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque, whose religious scholars and students had campaigned to enforce Sharia law in the capital. The battle for the mosque and its adjacent Islamic school ended on 11 July after a bloody week-long siege which killed more than 100.

“These attacks seem to be the direct result of the brewing militancy we have witnessed in the last months,” Badar Zaman of the Swat Youth Front (SYF), a local NGO running 39 community primary schools for girls.
Noted for its beauty, Swat has become a hotbed for Islamist militancy, which many fear will have a lasting effect. Much of the violence is directed at eradicating women’s already very restricted public space.
Educational institutions were instructed to remain closed on 24 and 25 October due to expected unrest, but this is becoming the norm in Swat these days.

Girls’ education suffers
Ongoing reports of parents pulling their children out of schools, particularly girls, highlight residents’ concerns.
The SYF is already reeling from the crises because its focus is on girls’ education in the area.
“We have had to ask the women field workers to go on extended leave. In such a hostile environment, mobilising parents to send their daughters to school becomes a long, drawn-out process and just when we think we’ve found a toehold, it all comes tumbling down and we’re back to square one,” said a clearly frustrated Zaman. 
After a new directive from pro-Taliban elements in the area ordering institutions to make the burqa mandatory for all school-age girls, attendance has dropped further.
Farkhanda Saifullah, principal of the Public-Private Collaboration Girls’ College, says: “There is some resistance from older college girls.”
Colleagues have informed her that the education department has ordered all public institutions to ensure these directives are followed, Saifullah added. 
The Sangota Public School for Girls, just 10 minutes’ walk from Mingora and the only Christian missionary school in Swat since 1965, has also been targeted. “Like all the other schools, we, too, received that threatening letter in September asking us to make the burqa compulsory, otherwise the school would be attacked,” informed Sister Seema, the school principal, who continues wearing her habit, even outside the school’s premises. 

Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
Some elements in Swat have been urging parents to send their children to madrassas

After the warning, the school was closed for a week but re-opened with “quite a few young girls - some as young as 12 and 13 - wearing the burqa, although a dozen have dropped out”, Seema added.    
With burqas costing between US$10 and $12 each, many girls from poorer families are unable to afford them so have no option but to abandon their education.  
However, unlike other schools in the area, Sangota has also been directed to dismiss three Christian teachers.
“This hurt the most,” said Seema, who feels that “faith has been allowed to come as a deterrent to education”.
According to Saifullah, areas under the direct influence of Maulana Fazalullah, a pro-Taliban cleric who has gathered a huge following, are the worst affected.
“In [small towns like] Manglor, Kabal, Mata and Dehri, there has been a 30 percent increase in drop-out rates among girls attending schools,” she said, adding: “Whenever a school receives a threatening letter, absenteeism in all the schools in the area rises.”  
Although Fazalullah has never openly ordered his followers to stop sending girls to school, many parents have done so of their own accord, preferring to send them to the cleric’s madrassa (religious school), which he is building.   

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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