Challenges in Education in South Asia

Published January 12, 2011

By Qasim Ahmad

Living in an Illiterate World

Before reading the rest of this article, take a moment and try a few simple exercises.

Imagine for a few minutes not being able to read or write at all. Imagine not being able to read in English, Arabic, or any other language. Now try to imagine how that would change your world.

You know what books are, you have seen newspapers, street signs, and the things written on TV, but imagine as part of this exercise that you never learned to understand any of this. You have seen other people reading and writing, but you never learned since you never had the chance or opportunity to.

Whenever you need anything read or written you will have to ask someone to read it for you, to write it for you. Sometimes it’s someone you know, maybe a younger relative who went to school, but most of the time it might just be a stranger you asked for help.

Now try to imagine holding this magazine and not being able to read it? What would it be like? How would you look at this differently? Would you just look through the pictures? Would you even open it at all or would you just look at the cover and leave it be since you know there probably isn’t much you can do with it anyway?

Now take it another step further. What would the rest of your life be like? As a parent, imagine your child is sick and you have a number of medicine bottles and pills but since you cannot read, you do not know which medicine to use or how much to give to your child. The instructions are written on the sides of the bottles, but they are just meaningless scribbles to you. What would you do?
Imagine trying to understand your finances now. You can tell the different bills apart, since the different bills for singles, fives, hundreds etc. might be different sizes and colors (as is the case in many countries like Pakistan). This helps you get by to count the money when you buy milk, but how do you record your transactions? What options do you have? Try to remember everything? What about phone numbers?

Try to imagine what job you would be able to have. Since you cannot read or write, any job involving technology is most likely out of the picture. In fact, most well-paying jobs will be out of your scope, and you will be restricted to jobs that are hard labor or simple tasks that are extremely repetitive, such as working in factories.

The bottom line is that without the ability to read and write, without being educated, you will hardly ever come close to the full potential you can have. This applies as an individual, and it applies as a society.

Status of Education What’s the Bad News?

Having spent some time in Pakistan’s education system, I would like to review what the status of the educated, or more accurately, the uneducated is there and in the other countries that make up the Indian subcontinent.

Across the board, there is a dire need for the education system in the different countries to be improved. Here are some basic statistics.

According to the United Nations Development Programme Report in 2009, in Pakistan, only 54.2% of the population is projected to be counted as literate. This number should be taken with a large grain of salt because it includes anyone who has basic reading skills without any formal education. In the same year, only 4.0% of Pakistanis pursued higher education in 2008.

According to the report, Pakistan ranked 163 out of 180 countries. In India, according to the same report, in 2009, the literacy rate was 66%, ranking 149 on the list. It currently has the largest illiterate population in the world. In 2001, Bihar had the lowest literacy rate at 47% and six Indian states account for about 70% of all illiterates in India: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

Bangladesh, ranked 165th, has a literacy rate of 53.5%, which is the lowest in South Asia. According to one study, there was a 15.5% primary school teacher absence rate. Across all the three countries mentioned above, there are some similarities as well. Women are almost always less educated then men except for a few specific instances. Illiteracy is also much more widespread in the rural areas as opposed to the cities. It is not uncommon to find entire villages where not a single person can read or write. This reflects long-term negligence towards education that has spanned generations.

How Did it Get So Bad?

Before you can make sense of where you are now, it always helps to understand how you actually got there and what else is involved. The current education crisis in South Asia is no different.

Historically, South Asia was an academic super power and there are plenty examples of its advanced understanding in a wide set of diverse disciplines such as medicine, architecture, poetry, philosophy, etc. However, once the British colonized the region, things started to change for the worse. Over the decades that followed, being educated became a privileged commodity that most people did not get to enjoy. Since there was no unified policy on promoting education, the entire education system fractured and now more than fifty years after independence, we are seeing its haunting effects throughout the entire region.

Another factor that also needs to be considered in today’s status quo is the extreme poverty in the region. According to a recent BBC article on the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which was developed by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) with UN support, eight Indian states account for more poor people than the 26 poorest African countries combined. This is more than the 410 million poor in the poorest African countries. Nearly a third of the people in Pakistan and thirty six percent of the people in Bangladesh live below poverty line.

These hard economic numbers translate into families having to make difficult decisions on whether they can even afford to send their children to school. Oftentimes, children will end up working jobs to provide some money for the family. Sending the same child to school will not only incur an expense for school uniforms, books, and other school materials, but the family will also lose income as well, so it’s a double hit on the family’s finances.

A good example to tie these factors together can be seen in the coexistence of parallel education systems with better education options available to those who can afford it. For example, in Pakistan, you will have the government sponsored system of Metric (10th grade) and FSc (12th grade). But if you want a more “prestigious” education, then you will opt for O’Levels (10th grade) and A Levels (12th grade) that is hosted by the London University via the British Council or a similar program with Cambridge University. These programs are obviously more expensive as well, keeping it out of reach for the general public. The government run programs are often Urdu based, and the other curriculums are English based, making language another barrier between the programs. These barriers in education have far-reaching social ramifications once the students have graduated and enter the job market.

Other Factors Involved

The most important one is that the level of government support over the years has been severely lacking. Pakistan as a percentage of its GDP spends only 2.9% on education. India started with less then 1%, and it has been increasing over the years. In 2002, the Indian government spent a little of 4% of the GDP. The ongoing geopolitical tensions in South Asia have diverted precious resources away from social development programs such as education.

Corruption and feudalism are also large factors that prevent the proper resources from getting allocated to education. Feudal landlords control all the villages on their property and force the residents to spend their time working the land instead of building a sustainable independent future.

The net result of all this is a poor economy, which leads to a poor job market. For the few who do become educated, it’s difficult to find a decent paying job in the country. The only other alternative is to look for jobs elsewhere, in the Middle East or even further resulting in a “brain drain” of the region. For any region to develop, it needs to attract bright minds and not let them slip away.

What is Missing from an Islamic Education Perspective?

Regarding Pakistan and Bangladesh, which are Muslim countries, I think there is a strong need to merge the Islamic teachings with the mainstream education systems. Currently, Islamic studies are taught in the contemporary schools that do not teach Islam in a pragmatic or practical way. In general, the curriculums are a mixture of history, basic values, rituals, and memorization of the Quran, which do not build a strong foundation. On the other side, there are also madrasahs (religious schools), which focus heavily on religious teachings and are not equipped to deliver a complete education for creating professionals.

I think it is critical for the education system to incorporate a wider set of Islamic teachings to incorporate more pragmatic and practical teachings of Islam. Topics such as the basics of the Arabic language, the Islamic way of thinking, Usul ul Fiqh, and Tafseer will provide a strong foundation for discourse in the society by empowering the public with a better understanding of how to apply Islamic principles in everyday life.

Currently, there is a wide gap in these societies between the Islamic scholars and the general public. One of the most important causes is the lack of understanding of the Arabic language. Without the language, people are automatically alienated from the Quran itself to a large degree because they cannot comprehend it at any level. This also causes them to rely solely on other individuals for their interpretations of what the Islamic texts say regarding a particular topic. By understanding the Arabic language and the basics of Tafseer, the people can feel a much stronger connection to Islam and its message.

The next issue is that people have no idea how to understand a fatwa that has been issued. It is viewed more as a divine ruling similar to the ruling a clergyman rather than a legal judgment that is eligible to be studied. The concept of understanding the daleel (proof) of an opinion is almost unheard of outside of those who consciously study Fiqh. This foundation of concepts will automatically lead to a more meaningful dialog between all the different opinions by building a common framework for this discourse.

It will be with this unified approach that we will see new scholars who are also scientists emerge similar to those we see in our Islamic history, such as Ibn Seena. It was not by mistake that the brightest minds in the society were religious and scientific authorities. These scholars were not inhibited by their Islamic understandings; rather, it motivated them and pushed them to strive for excellence in all areas of academia.

What is the Good News?

With all that’s mentioned about how desperate the illiteracy situation is, there has been some significant progress that has been made. Since independence, Pakistan has almost been increasing its literacy rate at ten percent every ten years. The government has recently made it its mission to raise the literacy to 85% by 2015 in accordance with the Millennium Development Goals set for Pakistan, and it is planning to start spending about 7% of the GDP (as opposed to 2.9%) on education.

Bangladesh has recently undergone a tremendous change that has resulted in significant strides for the better. The government has mandated a compulsory primary education for all students and free education for girls until the 10th grade.

India has also made amazing progress given all the challenges it faces. Since its independence, the literacy rate has grown from 18.33% to 66% in 2009. This is especially encouraging when taking into account the population grew in the same time period from 361 million to over 1,028 million.

Sri Lanka has not been mentioned in this article so far for good reason; the literacy rate was 90.8% in 2009, making it the 94th country, the best of all the South Asian countries, and possibly all of Asia. According to the Ministry of Statistics, today, there are approximately 9,830 public schools serving close to 4,030,000 students all around the island.

What Can We Do to Help?

Despite the recent improvements mentioned above, the situation is still very desperate for the majority of illiterate people in South Asia. Given the scale of the issue, there is plenty of opportunity for all different types of organizations to help. Outside of the government’s efforts to boost the literacy rate, there are a number of charity and non-government organizations that are focusing on different parts of the problem.

Helping Hands ( is a global humanitarian relief and development organization with education related projects in Pakistan. Between 2005 and 2006, they established 100 schools in the Punjab alone. In NWFP, they have helped establish 26 schools and five in Sindh. They have also worked with other NGO’s such as Tameer-e-Millat ( which has established 453 community schools throughout the country.

At a personal level, there is plenty that we can contribute as well. We can donate our time, money, and find creative ways to help (such as writing an article in the Message magazine to raise awareness on the issue). The cost of educating a child in South Asia is less than 20 dollars a month. When compared to the cost of educating a child in America, especially an Islamic school, it’s just a fraction of it.

One proposal I would like to suggest is everyone, especially if you have personal ties to a country where the literacy rate is low, should sponsor at least one child or school. Educating one child or building one school that can educate an entire community will have life changing consequences on the student’s lives. This effort will also be counted as Sadaaqa Jariyah, which will continue to add to the good deeds of the person who has donated. There are only three things that will continue to benefit a person after his/her death, and this will be included as one of them Inshallah.

In the end, I would just like to remind us all to appreciate the blessings of Allah that we can even read at all, and make dua for those who cannot. Education can transform a person’s life completely, changing it for the better for not only him or herself but for the coming generations as well. May Allah make it easy for all us as an ummah to achieve our full potential. Ameen.

Qasim AhmadAuthor Qasim Ahmad is an IT Manager, married with two children based in NJ.

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