Malala Yousufzai’s return to Pakistan last week was no less than triumphant, more than five years after she was critically injured in a vicious Taliban attack. Shot from a close range in her native Swat Valley, the teenager who subsequently rose to global fame, survived and recovered in no less than a profound miracle.
While she underwent a surgery immediately after the attack for a complicated skull injury at a hospital in the northern city of Peshawar, the criticality of her condition was highlighted when a young doctor proclaimed her chances of survival as “no better than fifty, fifty”. Malala’s recovery bore testimony to her determination and grit.
Her crime that earned her the wrath of the Taliban was simply the matter of pressing for the right of women to be educated. Today, Malala stands out as the world’s youngest recipient of Nobel Prize and a source of unending pride for Pakistan.
Yet, her homecoming takes place as Pakistan remains at a crossroads, faced with multiple challenges all to do with nation building. Her return takes place at a time when Pakistan’s domestic politics and connected matters remain in turmoil.
As the mainstream political parties sharpen their proverbial knives ahead of this years’ parliamentary elections that will lead to the formation of the next government, there appears to be little interest in tackling matters of key interest to Malala. The cause of education across Pakistan clearly remains divided between state-provided education with its many gaps as opposed to privately-run systems that come at an exorbitant cost for low-income Pakistanis.
Though there are exceptions among private providers of education, such as the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) or the Karachi-based Aga Khan University (AKU) or Habib University, those are just not true for a larger number of other institutions.
Across Pakistan, scores of private schools, colleges and universities exist primarily with a profit motive. This divide shows far too few examples of academic institutions that are ready to offer a full financial cover to academically bright students from impoverished homes.
The story of the divide across Pakistan’s educational system tragically repeats itself in other parts of society too. Clearly, the story of this neglect in education is no different from conditions across Pakistan’s health care or public hygiene and sanitation or indeed private security. In each of these areas, the state has largely abdicated its responsibilities and private providers have stepped in — only with a profit motive.
As Pakistan heads into this years’ election cycle, its clear that the main political entities are committed to offer only lip-service to the gaps surrounding the lives of approximately one-third of Pakistan’s population that lives in abject poverty. The ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), until recently led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, is primarily committed to defending Sharif. The former prime minister was ousted last year in a Supreme Court verdict that came at the end of a long trial on unaccounted overseas wealth belonging to Sharif’s family. His departure has forced the PML-N into a one-point agenda — that of reversing Sharif’s conviction and having him back in the political fold.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by former president Asif Ali Zardari, which had previously ruled Pakistan and now rules over the province of Sindh, is the other mainstream party. In Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh, there is widespread evidence of a clear disruption in daily life caused by a breakdown in basic services. Though the PPP has lately begun overseeing new road projects in the city as it prepares for the approaching elections, the effort could well be too little and too late. By some estimates, almost one-third of Karachi’s population lives in either abject poverty or close to such a dismal condition.
In recent years, the increasing number of street crimes in Karachi has been brought under control following a comprehensive military-led crackdown. And yet, the essential follow-up work in undertaking badly-needed rejuvenation of impoverished neighbourhoods is still waiting to be done.
Among mainstream leaders, Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), stands out as the one prominent example of an individual with a personal history of philanthropy.
In this background, Malala Yousufzai’s return to Pakistan marks a significant milestone for her native country. Yet, her high-profile homecoming alone will not change the dynamics surrounding Pakistan and the way it is being economically marginalised.
The leaders of the country’s mainstream political parties must follow with personal examples towards tackling widespread poverty. More importantly, they must also lead their respective parties to embrace progressive new policies backed by a much stronger commitment to badly-needed change. Only then will Malala’s brave message in favour of widespread educational reforms change Pakistan.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.