Pakistan's 'ghost schools' threaten next generation

Pakistan's 'ghost schools' threaten next generation
Girls attend lessons at a school in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad.

CHANCHER REDHAR , Pakistan - In a decrepit white-walled classroom in southern Pakistan, Bushra valiantly struggles to keep discipline as a dozen girls run and scream around her. With no teacher for the past eight months, the 10-year-old has been forced to step in.

"I teach them lessons from the Quran, I teach them Sindhi, I teach them to count one-two, I teach them the alphabet A-B-C-D," said Bushra, wearing a traditional nose stud and a scarf around her head. She says she dreams of becoming a doctor and learning about computers.

But her academic ambitions risk being scuppered after her own teacher fled. Authorities have not appointed a new one, making Bushra's situation typical for a student at one of Pakistan's 7,000 so-called "ghost schools", where no formal classes can be taught.

These abandoned pupils are part of a growing education crisis in the country where, according to the United Nations, over five million children do not attend primary school.

"The last teacher told us she would stop coming if we did not pay for her transportation to the village," said Salim Samoon, who has seven granddaughters at the school catering for the roughly 600 residents of Chancher Redhar, a village two hours drive from Karachi in the south of Pakistan.

"But we have no money and the authorities have not appointed a new teacher," he said.

The southern village is far from the notoriously conservative parts of northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border, where Taliban attacks against public schools are commonplace.

Schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai become an international symbol of the right to education for all after surviving a 2012 Taliban attack in which she was shot in the head.

But the damage caused by "ghost schools" across Pakistan, such as the one in Chancher Redhar, is self-inflicted and potentially greater: a new generation of children growing up without an education, either because the schools have been abandoned, destroyed, or because teachers are not turning up.

"Maybe the media highlights the bombings of schools more because it is visible. But this is a more dangerous problem," said Rahmatullah Balal of the NGO Ailaan Alif, who has published a ranking of districts in terms of the quality of education available.

According to his ranking, the district of Thatta, home to Bushra and her classmates, lies in 140th position out of a total of 144, behind Taliban hideouts in the northwest.

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