12/23/2014 05:26 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Pakistan: When Children Fear to Learn

In Pakistan schools have become sites of horrific terror instead of temples of learning.
Pakistan is one of the few places in the world where children are actively risking their lives by attending school. The recent attack in Peshawar, which has left 141 students dead, has forced this factor in the spotlight and set the violence facing the youth of Pakistan in stark relief.

The state of education in Pakistan has always been tenuous, but the recent attack in Peshawar might have strained the system beyond repair. Extremism and violence are dismantling an already broken system in Pakistan.

Improving the Pakistan education system has been one of the greatest and unique reform challenges in the entire world. Pakistan is a nation of 200 million people, of whom 52 million are youth guaranteed a free and compulsory education. Unfortunately about half of this number, about roughly 27 million children, do not actually attend school. One in ten of the entire world's primary age children who are not in schools live in Pakistan.

Compounding these attendance issues is the dismal state of the actual infrastructure of the school system. A large percentage of Pakistan's schools lack functioning facilities, with problems ranging from running drinking water to boundary walls between classrooms. Over half of government run schools don't have running electricity, and 42 percent do not have working toilets.

The poor facilities and the large number of unqualified teachers have completely tarnished the education system, and the results are reflected in students performance. The Annual Status of Education Report revealed that across the board students are scoring below their expected level. Most telling are mathematics scores, where only 50 percent of 10-year-olds were able to pass the competency level of seven year-olds.

Many of these problems can be traced to the numerous phases of Pakistani politics. During the 1980s, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq reformed the national curriculum in order to "Islamize" it. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif allowed for cadres of inept and untrained teachers to gain positions with ease. Gen. Pervez Musharraf let these outdated practices continue into the 21st century.

Of course, the state is not the only party to blame in this listing ship. The attack in Peshawar is not an isolated incident. The perpetrators of the massacre, Tehrik-e-Taliban, claim that the attacks were done in revenge for civilian deaths during Operation Zarb-e-Azb, an anti-militancy campaign earlier this year. However, it is clear that this atrocity is a part of a larger anti-education war being carried out by the Pakistani Taliban.

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) released a report earlier this year detailing the numerous attacks conducted by extremists on schools throughout Pakistan. At least 838 schools have been attacked, and hundreds have been destroyed. According to the report, the Taliban has begun an "alarming efficient" war against the school system that they feel promotes "western decadence and un-Islamic teachings." Schoolchildren have become combatants in the mind of the Taliban, and schools have become targets of high value.

While the first string of attacks were conducted during the cover of night, recent incidents have become more and more brazen. In September of 2011, Taliban fighters attacked a school bus, killing four schoolchildren and the driver, and wounding 12 more. The report found that at the least 30 children have been killed between 2009 and 2012 simply for the crime of attending school.

Girl's faces the greatest threat of violence. Nobel Prize Laureate, Malala Yousafzai, first brought the issue to the international community's focus when she was shot in the head and neck at 15 for "promoting secular and anti-Taliban values" by lobbying for girl's education on her blog. When the Taliban took over the Swat valley in 2009, girl's schools were banned completely, forcing 120,000 girls to stop going to school. Reports show that nearly 62 percent of girls who are currently not attending school will never attend school, more than twice as many as their male counterparts.

This "war against education" from the Taliban has effectively crippled the future of Pakistan, ensuring that the vast human potential of the nation will be going to waste. However, in the wake of the attack in Peshawar, there needs to be a concerted attempt by the state and people of Pakistan to reform and support the education system. The government needs to develop new partnerships with NGOs and the private sector to more effectively achieve universal primary education. Most importantly, a drastic effort needs to be taken to spread awareness throughout the rural population on the importance of education and more specifically the education for girls.

The battle cry for retribution will not heal the wounds left by these attacks. If attention is not paid to the struggling education system, generations to come will be left with a mangled future.