Dawn Editorial 21th September 2023

Lost generations

IF those who wield power in Pakistan think that the nation can progress when tens of millions of its children have either never been to school, or have dropped out, they are fooling none but themselves. The sobering reality is that Pakistan has the second highest out-of-school population in the world — around 23m children aged between five and 16 years — while many of those who do make it to school drop out before completing their studies. These lost generations will face poverty, exploitation and a lack of opportunities throughout life. Recent figures given by the Sindh government indicate the challenges that the high dropout rate poses. The province’s caretaker chief minister was informed on Tuesday that the school dropout rate in Sindh was 54pc, while over 50pc of the province’s women could not read or write. These twin challenges — high dropout rates and female illiteracy — are portents of a demographic disaster in the making. If the problem is left unaddressed, provincial and national development plans will be scuttled.

Nationwide, dropout rates are a matter of concern, though the situation in Balochistan and Sindh is particularly acute. According to Unicef, enrolment figures dip considerably for both boys and girls between the primary and lower secondary levels, which indicates that a large number of students drop out as they reach higher grades. The UN body also notes that credible data and measures to monitor retention rates are weak. There are numerous factors contributing to high dropout rates, including poverty and difficult access to schools. Experts have called for non-formal schooling solutions and alternative learning pathways to address such a huge population of out-of-school children and those that drop out. Civil society and education activists have long been warning about the ‘education emergency’. However, despite the Constitution’s Article 25-A calling upon the state to provide free and compulsory education, millions of children remain deprived of a chance to learn and build a brighter future.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2023

Greater representation

PAKISTAN now stands at a significant juncture, with the names of 11.7m more women added to the voter list, signalling a tangible stride in mitigating the deep-rooted gender gap in voter registration. Recent data released by the Election Commission of Pakistan is indeed heartening: it illustrates a pronounced increase in the number of registered women voters, which has surged from 47m in 2018 to a commendable 58m as of July 25, 2023. Despite this significant progress, a gap remains, evident from the 10m fewer women of voting age compared to men in a nation where women represent 49pc of the population. Over 21m voters have been incorporated since the last general elections, with the male voter populace burgeoning to 69m, spotlighting the persistent need to amplify initiatives that are aimed at uplifting women’s electoral participation. Looking at the remarkable progress across the border, where India noted a higher female voter turnout (67.18pc) compared to males (67pc) in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, we are reminded of the transformative potential of fostering a robust female voter base. In contrast, Pakistan’s 2018 general election presented a glaring disparity with a 47pc female turnout compared to 56pc male turnout — a substantial gap representing 11.18m untapped potential female voices.

The trend continued in the subsequent 98 by-elections where women constituted a mere 40pc of the total ballots cast. Yet, a silver lining exists in the conscious policy initiated in 2018 to separately count women’s votes, offering a focused lens to analyse, understand, and methodically address regional disparities. At this critical juncture, political parties, particularly entities such as the PTI which championed women’s voter participation in 2018, must galvanise to nurture an electoral landscape where gender bias finds no ground. As we inch closer to the next electoral milestone, a concentrated effort to enhance awareness and facilitate empowerment must be at the forefront of our democratic strategy, rallying to not only eradicate the gender disparity in voter registration but to also foster a vibrant culture that celebrates the voice and vote of every Pakistani woman. A holistic approach involving government bodies, civil society, and community organisations can craft a future where the electoral arena is a true representation of Pakistan’s diverse populace, echoing the unified voices of 58m women in harmony with their male counterparts.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2023

What next?

A CRACK of the whip was all that was needed. The dollar, which had lately been racing to a new high each day, has now reversed course thanks to an army-sanctioned operation against hoarders and black marketeers.

Local media reports that confidence in the rupee has strengthened and that now there are more sellers than buyers in the market.

Meanwhile, social media has been flush with accounts of unscrupulous elements being arrested with breathtaking stashes of foreign currencies, which have subsequently been confiscated by the state.

It remains difficult to sift truth from fiction, however: after all, the state has not shared how this crackdown was planned and executed, who was targeted, and precisely what role the suspects arrested so far played in manipulating the exchange rate.

While the sharp improvement in exchange rates cannot be denied, the citizenry also deserves to know how and why the market was rigged in the first place.

One wonders that if administrative measures were all that were needed to arrest the rupee’s sorry slide, why were they not taken sooner? Why did the finance minister in the PDM government not consider this option as he struggled and failed for months to keep the exchange rate in check?

After all, the cost to the country of rounding up a few dozen big fish involved in the currency market racket would have been far lower compared to the lasting cost of creating distortions in the economy by placing artificial and unsustainable controls on the exchange rate.

The same question can also be extended to ask why the civil administration was never utilised during the PDM era to control market manipulation in other segments of the economy either. Why were the country’s regulatory authorities not mobilised to safeguard the interests of common citizens pleading for support under record inflation?

It seems that when economic historians sit down to reflect on the PDM era, they will find themselves hard-pressed to say anything charitable about the competence of the people at the helm during one of the country’s worst crisis periods.

That is not to say that the current lot offers much hope. The country is presently managed by a caretaker set-up, but its ministers’ promises seem to betray a wider mandate. Yet they seem to be in very little hurry to take the ‘difficult decisions’ that are supposed to justify them overstaying their welcome.

Successful though it may be, a crackdown against currency dealers can only create limited breathing space. The situation demands that an empowered government, elected by the people, take over post-haste so that responsible decisions can be taken to protect the public’s interests.

Alas, this more permanent solution seems to be unacceptable to the wise souls managing Pakistan’s affairs these days.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2023

September 28, 2023

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