EducationNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 19

Virus hits poor children’s education hard

Muhammad Awais was rendered jobless in April 2020, almost one month after the federal government imposed a lockdown in Lahore, like other major cities and towns of the country, after the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the world, including Pakistan. A resident of a two-room rented portion in the Mochi Gate area, he worked as a salesman at a toy and decoration item shop at the Shah Alam Market Lahore. The shop owner was a God-fearing person; he not only expressed his regrets over the termination of his job but also gave him a two-month salary, though the shop had been closed in the middle of the previous month.

The entire family of the middle-aged Muhammad Awais was badly affected due to the disruption of his monthly income. He knew it very well that his family would have to face starvation soon if a new job, or some other source of income, was not found. His wife had already been adding to his monthly income by stitching women’s clothes at home, though it used to be a small amount mostly. His three children, 15-year-old daughter Aasia, a ninth grader; 12-year-old Muhammad Subhan, a sixth grader; and six-year-old Muhammad Furqan, a class-one student, had also been confined to the four walls of their small house.

A few weeks of deliberations and analysis of their financial situation and ground realities helped Awais and his wife reach a decision that they should accept Cheena Ustad’s offer and send their son to him to become a motorcycle mechanic in the next five, six years. Cheena Ustad’s original name was Ghulam Rasool, and he had been running a roadside motorcycle workshop in the area for long. Being appreciative of Muhammad Awais’s hard work and honesty, Cheena had asked his neighbour many a time to send his son to him to become a “great motorcycle mechanic, like him” instead of wasting time and money on acquisition of an education. “The child would start earning something from day one, besides learning a lifelong skill,” Cheena used to tell Awais in their almost daily meetings. So, Subhan quit education for good and started going to Cheena’s workshop, thanks to the weaker financial position of his parents. Two other “chhotas” were already learning the art of becoming an Ustad at the workshop.

Fouzia Habib’s case was, however, different from Subhan’s. Her family had to move from Lahore to their ancestral town in tehsil Depalpur’s far-off village after a lockdown was imposed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic outbreak and removal of his father from a private company. After making some unsuccessful attempts to get another job, Habibullah decided to go back to his village and join his brothers in cultivating their agricultural land. Even after reopening of schools, her father didn’t bother to admit her to the village school as her family was residing at the dera (outhouse) of their fields.

Subhan and Fouzia are two typical examples of children, who had to leave their education mainly due to the weak financial position of their parents. A survey report, issued by the Punjab government education sector reforms programme recently, made a startling revelation that at least 58 per cent of the students not returning to campuses said they had to quit school due to financial hardships of their parents, after schools were reopened in Punjab in 2020.

Those leaving their school were mostly primary class boy students. Before the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, the attendance ratio of boy students of one to tenth classes used to be 96pc, and those of girl students 95pc, till January 2020. However, the attendance ratio dropped by 10pc till Nov 2020.

A World Bank report, released last year, said that an estimated 930,000 additional children are expected to drop out from both primary and secondary education. Given that 22 million are already out of school, this represents an increase of almost 4.2pc. Pakistan is globally a country where dropouts are the highest due to the COVID-19 crisis in relative terms.

The WB report suggested that the estimate was based on the observed income elasticity of education for various socio-economic quintiles and was based on the June 2020 growth projections for Pakistan, which were estimated to be minus 4.4pc. Income elasticity in Pakistan was high for two main reasons: high poverty levels, which lead families to push their children into labour, like in the case of Muhammad Subhan, or marriage from an early age; and the cost of private schooling in which 38pc of school-going children aged six to 10 were enrolled before the crisis.

The education sector reforms programme report said that the main reason for the dropouts was severe financial hardship of parents in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The monthly income of parents of those leaving school was reported less than Rs10,000. Eighty-seven per cent of such parents were either primary pass, or totally illiterate, added the report.

The report, enlisting reasons for students leaving school, showed that 25pc did not return to their classes due to parents’ financial problems after the coronavirus outbreak, while 16pc were fed up with education and they did not want to return to their school. Fifteen per cent such students were studying at private schools, while 11pc had moved to some other cities or towns during the pandemic period, like in the case of Fouzia Habib.

Elaborating details, the report said that 8pc children had left school for fear of the coronavirus, 7pc for being unable to pay school fee, 7pc for becoming ill in the period, 4pc joined madrasas, 7pc could not afford the transport fare to school and one per cent left school as their mothers had died during the period.

According to the report, 39pc parents said it was better for the entire family that their children stop going to school, and 34pc said it was better for their children also that they did not attend their school. A large majority of dropping out children are helping their families to earn a livelihood, some are sitting idle at home and some are learning some skills to supplement the incomes of their families.

The report says 13pc of dropping out girls and 9pc of boys are helping their families make a living, and the monthly earning of their families is less than Rs25,000 per month. Ten per cent of such parents are labourers, 5pc are farmers and 3pc are shopkeepers. Also, 23pc boys and girls leaving school during the pandemic are doing nothing at their homes.