December 01, 2022
Holding an increasingly vulnerable position in the Climate Risk index, Pakistan experienced unprecedented floods this year. According to UNDP, the floods have claimed the lives of 1730 people and have impacted about 33 million people. Early estimates indicate almost one third of the country was submerged under water.
Amongst this massive destruction and displacement, school-going children, especially young girls, have reemerged as the most vulnerable group. Out of the 33 million displaced, 3.5 million of them are school-going children. Not only have they lost their homes along with their sense of security, their learning gap has widened further. This pushes them further into a space of immobilization. It's important to first ascertain the losses endured by these children for the policy responses and relief efforts to be well-targeted and effective.
Flash floods have wreaked havoc across the country leaving school infrastructure damaged beyond repair or partially damaged. According to UNICEF, 35% of schools have been affected by this environmental disaster. Sindh has suffered most of the damage as 79% of its schools have been affected by the floods followed by 11% in KPK, 8% in Punjab and 2% in Balochistan. The extent of the damage incurred by these school buildings varies in each district. However, they remain in a state of disrepair for now.
The unavailability of adequate learning spaces for children is aggravated as some of the undamaged school buildings are being used as relief camps. 7000 of the school buildings all across Pakistan are acting as temporary accommodation for flood victims.
From past experiences, the need for regular attendance within school premises has become increasingly apparent. During the COVID-19 outbreak, Pakistan became one of the countries with the longest school closures. Schools remained fully or partially closed for about 64 weeks from 2020 to 2022. Remote learning practices during these frequent school closures proved to be inconsequential. According to the World Bank's 2020 report, learning losses were equal to 1.5 to 2 school years.
It's also important to note how the response fared in previous environmental disasters. After the 2005 earthquake, school closures led the learning gap of the students to increase to 2 years and those learning losses continued for four years afterwards. These losses emerged despite financial compensation given to the families.
These results highlight the importance of in-person learning mechanisms for the children impacted by the floods. Rough estimates indicate that one-third of these children were not receiving formal education even before the devastation. Moreover, about 50% of the school-going children were behind their grade levels. Without proper schooling, these problems will exacerbate resulting in higher drop-out rates. This opens up potential risks of an increase in instances of child marriages and child labour.
Studies have also shown that a lack of school infrastructural facilities have a direct correlation with higher drop-out rates. Lack of facilities like toilets and boundary walls act as major push-out factors for primary and secondary school students, especially girls. In 2019 researcher Abbas Ali Ghani found a direct link between the availability of boundary walls in schools and higher total enrollment. Without the presence of such facilities, engagement levels drop as students feel insecure and uncomfortable in their learning environments.
Let's not underestimate the shelter that schools provide to students coming from abusive households. During the pandemic, levels of domestic violence against women aged 15-49 rose to 28%. This paints a grim picture for children from these households who already possess little to no agency.
All of these factors point towards immediate efforts towards the reconstruction of the schools decimated by the floods. While UNICEF has set up more than 500 temporary learning centers and deployed teachers to provide these out-of-school children with education and emotional support, there needs to be a united and targeted approach by the multiple parties involved. Simple cash transfers to the flood affectees would not ensure students would return to the schools once they reopen. Restoration of school buildings and other learning centers seems to be the need of the hour.