Girls’ college in northern Pakistan reopens 15 years after closure

Even after the fall of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in the region, which banned girls and women from attending school, girls in northern Pakistan face significant barriers to getting an education

A boy sits in a van with others while heading to their school in Pakistan. (photo credit: FAISAL MAHMOOD/REUTERS)
A boy sits in a van with others while heading to their school in Pakistan.

After serving for 15 years as a base for law enforcement activities, the Government Girls Degree College in Khwazakhela, Pakistan has reopened, and is again serving the young women of the war-torn northern area of the country.

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“I never thought this college would reopen during our lifetime,” Malaika Bano, a 30-year-old resident of Khwazakhela, who once attended the college, told The Media Line

“At first, we thought the college was temporarily closed. However, after being closed for 15 years, it has reopened to provide educational opportunities. My education was left incomplete, but now I am satisfied that my younger sisters will be able to get higher education,” she said.

When Pakistan launched a military operation against Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, in 2007, the military commandeered the college to use as housing for troops. Since then, the college has been used by law enforcement agencies as a base camp.

After drawn-out local efforts, the law enforcement agencies have vacated the college. Educational activities have resumed.

Interrupted education for girls

Bano was in the middle of her studies at Government Girls Degree College when the building was converted to military use. The interruption to her education dictated her life’s direction. “After years of waiting, the college could not open, and then my parents married me off at a young age,” she said.

She is optimistic that the college’s reopening will mean that other young women are able to access the opportunities she was denied.

“I have two daughters and I am busy taking care of them,” Bano said. “The return of academic activities at the college gives me peace of mind that at least my younger sisters and other girls will be able to pursue higher education.”

Najma Rahman, the principal of the college, told The Media Line that while classes have resumed, much work remains to be done.

“The basic facilities like the washroom, electricity and clean water are still not fully functioning. The teaching staff is trying to restore these facilities with mutual collections. Due to such reasons, the college hostel is still closed. However, to improve security measures, we installed CCTV cameras and barbed wire, and the army has donated a library and a mosque to the college,” Rahman said.

According to Rahman, the 800 students at the college make use of only 12 classrooms.

“For a smooth running of academic activities, we need more space to accommodate students,” she said.

Khwazakhela is located in the Swat Valley in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan.

Swat’s snow-capped mountains and scenic views have given it the reputation as a miniature Switzerland. But with the rise of the TTP in the region, it has become a site of conflict and violence.

Girls’ and women’s education has been a particularly contentious issue in Swat.

In 2007, the TTP gained control of Swat and imposed their strict interpretation of Islamic laws on the area. Girls’ education became illegal. Many schools in the region, especially girls’ schools, closed following the TTP’s rise to power.

The TTP also engaged in a campaign of violence against those who opposed their rule, including teachers and activists advocating for girls’ education. The best-known example is that of Malala Yousafzai, who survived a bullet to the head in 2012 as a result of speaking out against the ban on girls attending school in the district.

The brazen attack on Yousafzai, who was 15 at the time, sparked outrage in Pakistan and internationally. Yousafzai went on to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism.

The Swat faction of TTP was led by military commander Mullah Fazlullah. In addition to ordering the attempted assassination of Yousafzai, Fazlullah was the mastermind behind a 2014 massacre of 156 students and teachers at a school in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In speeches broadcast through an illegal FM radio station, Fazlullah described girls’ education as un-Islamic. According to media reports, more than 70% of girls studying in the region in 2006 and 2007 dropped out or were unable to continue their education.

Fazullah was designated as a global terrorist by the US and had a bounty for his capture of $5 million. In June 2018, he was killed in a US drone strike in the Afghanistan province of Kunar.

The Pakistani military eventually succeeded in regaining control over Swat through a major military operation against the TTP. Following the operation, the Pakistani government began efforts to rebuild the region’s infrastructure, including its schools, and to encourage parents to send their daughters to school.

Hadiqa Bashir, a Swat-based girls’ rights activist and chair of the Girls United for Human Rights Foundation, praised the reopening of the college.

“It is fortunate that the Girls Degree College in Khwazakhela has commenced its activities after 15 years,” Bashir told The Media Line. “It is also the moment of greatest comfort for girls from the hilltops as it becomes easier for them to reach college and pursue degree-level education in their hometown instead of traveling remote.”

While pursuing an education in Swat as a girl was once a genuine risk, Bashir reported that the situation is currently safe. “As far as the security situation is concerned in the valley, at the moment, there is peace, and there is no fear of any terror attack on the educational institutions,” Bashir said. “Now girls can get higher education and be empowered in the future.”

Bashir noted that barriers remain to girls’ education in the region. The primary school drop-out rate for girls is about 30%, which Bashir attributed to poverty as well as family responsibilities.

“Girls’ schools also lack basic facilities, which include clean drinking water and washrooms,” Bashir said. “In most institutions, due to the lack of chairs, girls are forced to study sitting on the ground. Regrettably, the government did nothing to provide such facilities, particularly in the girls’ schools.”

Nida Khan, a Peshawar-based lawyer, calls attention to the role of local residents in reopening the college.

“For the restoration of Khwazakhela Girls Degree College, civil society played a pivotal role, which proved that the community engagement in supporting girls’ education is essential to create a safe and conducive environment,” she said.

For Erfaan Hussein Babak, executive director of The Awakening, a Swat-based organization working for social and cultural development, improving girls’ education in the district is a key priority.

“It is a bitter reality that due to insufficient educational institutions in Swat, scores of girls are unable to get a high school level education,” he said. “Girls’ education is crucial for the development and progress of any society. It gives them the confidence to pursue their dreams and aspirations and to become independent and self-reliant.”

Khwazakhela-based activist Haider Jan said that much remains to be done to promote girls’ education in Swat, and that the government needs to take a more active role.

Jan pointed to the shortage of educational institutions in Khwazakhela as one of the primary problems. The town of around 250,000 residents has only one girls’ college.

Like Khan, Jan attributed the successes in the realm of education to civil society rather than to the government. “The educational institutes that have been restored here are the results of the long struggle of the local people,” he said, “and the government's intervention was insignificant.”

“Investing in girls' education is essential for the development of any country. It can lead to improved economic, social and health outcomes for individuals, families and communities,” he said. “Overall, improving girls’ education and addressing the issue of terrorism in Swat requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes of the problem, including poverty, lack of access to education and political instability.”