Towards legalising student unions
It would be a great democratic service to the country if Prime Minister Imran Khan allows the restoration of student unions; though subject to a “comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct,” of course. Perhaps taking a clue from the overwhelming support for the demand in the wake of the successful Student Solidity March across the country on November 30, the government has started considering the issue. The prime minister tweeted: “Universities groom future leaders of the country and student unions form an integral part of this grooming. Unfortunately, in Pakistani universities, student unions became violent battlegrounds and completely destroyed the intellectual atmosphere on campuses.” In another tweet, he emphasised the restoration of unions after a well-thought out strategy, which is indeed a good strategy. His fear about the proliferation of violent groups on campuses is well-founded as the Punjab University had to penalise over a dozen students for violence and breaching discipline. Violence on campuses, however, is the byproduct of the ban on student unions by the Zia martial law regime roughly 35 years ago. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, which often takes credit for politicising the youth for their democratic rights, should have announced the restoration of student unions well ahead of the students’ march.
The fresh announcement, though a welcome one, has not come without a spoiler: the police have registered a case against the march activists, including the father of late student activist Mashaal Khan, for taking out the procession. Not only this, a student activist was abducted from the Punjab University campus the following day. Such acts, we believe, are only meant to cloud the spirit of the prime minister’s announcement on the restoration of student unions. The government must take notice of the police case and the disappearance of the student activist.
The prime minister’s step to restore unions is likely to get massive approval from both sides of the aisle in the House. On the day of the students’ march, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari announced his support for the rallies as well as the demand for lifting the ban on union activities. The National Awami Party has long been a supporter of healthy student activism, while PML-N and other mainstream parties have also voiced their support. Ministers like Dr Shereen Mazari, Fawad Chaudhry and Firdous Ashiq Awan have openly favoured the students’ demands. Other than unions, students have also spoken out for the establishment of committees in institutes to probe into sexual harassment cases as well as ensuring representation of students on these committees. Their other demand is the removal of security forces’ offices from campuses and an end to undue checking. These demands also merit attention of the authorities. *
PWDs are as able as us
On this World Disability Day, the world, in general, and Pakistan, in particular, should shun the perception about the people with disabilities (PWDs) that those born with a disability do not have a desire to live a life. No, nada. They do have goals and dreams that somebody non-disabled has. This widespread belief has ruined many lives. Thankfully, the Punjab government’s policies on disabled people and special education have addressed the stigma and put more focus on efforts to mainstream them. These efforts, however, will be realised only with the inclusion and education of the non-disabled people at a mass level as their attitude towards PWDs is the main problem. It has been observed that the families having children with special needs keep them homebound, making them an extra burden on them. Schools fail to address their needs and the teachers, not trained enough on special education, often fail them.
As per the World Health Organization data, Pakistan’s 15 percent of the population is of PWDs. According to the Bureau of Statistics Planning and Development Board Government of the Punjab Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2017-18, up to 17.9 percent of children ages five to 17 have been living in the province with one or multiple disabilities from profound to mild such as hearing, vision, communication/comprehension, learning, mobility, and emotions. The World Disability Report states that children with disabilities are less likely to start school than their able-bodied peers, and while once at the school, they keep on facing problems also have lower retention and transition rates.
The Special Education Policy of Punjab (2019), being unveiled today, has addressed the main concerns of special education. The policy, consisting of three pillar – (a) strengthening the governance and institutional capacity of special education department (b) increasing access of children with special educational needs and disabilities to education and (c) improving quality of special education. The policy’s focus is on the integration of children with mild to moderate disabilities as “an estimated 27% of PWDs will be incorporated in mainstream public schools as a result of this policy.” If this is delivered, this will be a leading example for other provinces too. PWDs’ inclusion into mainstream schools will give them access to mainstream public life. This will be a learning experience for teachers as well as students to be aware of the needs of the people with special needs. The integration of PWDs at the school level will help society and the government enforce transport and building bylaws for PWDs. These measures are likely to make PWDs’ lives more independent. In fact, they need more independence and empowerment and not pity.