Shad Wali’s classroom is the streets of Peshawar, Pakistan.
The 9-year-old spends his days scouring garbage piles near the Saddar, the main bazaar, searching for scraps and keeping them if they can be sold.
Wali and his 5-year-old brother, Riaz, cannot afford the 50 rupees (75 cents) every day that it costs to go to school, and they make their living selling garbage. Occasionally, Wali finds a reminder of what he is missing — a torn schoolbook. He thumbs through it, looking at the pictures before tossing it into his grimy sack to sell it at the junkyard.
“I want to go to school, but I come from a poor family that cannot afford to send us to school,” said Wali, as his brother continued to forage in the garbage heap. “My mother says that my father’s income is not enough to meet our needs.”
Wali and his brother collect scraps all day and make just under $3 at the city junkyards.
They are among the nearly 181,000 children age 5 to 16 who do not attend school in the provincial capital, according to a 2015 annual report by Alif Ailaan, a group that supports organizations working for education reform.
Poverty plays a vital role in keeping children out of school, with 41 percent of children from poor families in Peshawar unable to attend classes, while only 11 percent of children from rich households are out of school, the report found. Sixteen percent of boys and 32 percent of girls do not attend school due to poverty and a lack of support from the government, as well as parents’ opposition to girls’ education.
Tariq Hayat Khan, the program manager for the NGO Peace Education and Development Foundation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa agreed that conservative opposition to girls’ education and government inaction were to blame for the problem. He called on the government to increase spending on schools, appoint up to 10,000 more teachers and make school mandatory for boys and girls.
“To attract poor children to schools, the government should give a stipend so parents would allow students to come to schools,” Khan said.
The government has tried to combat the problem, with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Elementary and Secondary Education Director Rafiqu Khattak saying that the province launched a campaign to enroll more children across the province in April and September. So far, they have enrolled 400,000 youngsters and are confident they could reach 800,000 with a long-term goal of getting all of the province’s 2.5 million children into school.
As part of the campaign, Khattak said officials have gone door to door to persuade parents to enroll their children and even offered a monthly stipend for girls who are enrolled.
However, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Elementary and Secondary Education Chief Planning Officer Idress Azam acknowledged that even with the stipend, it can be hard to persuade poor parents to send their children, especially girls, to school.
“Education departments in some districts provide a 200 rupee [about $1.90] stipend to female students and also provide free books,” Azam said. “But the parents are not interested in their children getting an education.”
Even when they get them into school, it can be hard for schools to hold onto these students.
Malik Khalid, provincial president of the All Primary Teachers Association, said dropout rates at government schools are increasing because of lack of interest from the government and parents. The government, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Elementary and Secondary Education Department and teachers should come up with a policy to demonstrate the value of education to parents, he said.
Still, he welcomed the scholarship initiative by the provincial government for girls in rural areas.
“A majority of parents of out-of-school children are poor and work as laborers,” Khalid said. “Their children are also a source of income for poor families who don’t understand that they are destroying their children’s future. The government is responsible for out-of-school children.”
Part of the problem is school funding. Nearly the entire school budget goes to salaries, leaving little for upkeep of schools and basic necessities such as plumbing or adequate assistance to poor students.
Water is not available in 20 percent of the schools, and 9 percent of the district’s schools do not have toilets. There is no electricity in 39 percent of schools. On average, there are only five classrooms in a single school for primary-level students.
Peshawar District Education Officer Sharif Gul acknowledged that schools lack facilities. He said the government was taking steps to address this.
“Hundreds of teachers have been appointed in Peshawar, and next we will be focusing on providing the basic missing facilities,” Gul said.
One of the most insurmountable barriers is cultural. Several parents said in interviews that they needed their children at home to help supplement the family’s income and, when it came to girls, that they could not accept the idea of sending them to school.
“I cannot fulfill the high expenditure of my family alone, and my son supports me to run the activities of home,” said Shahkir Khan said, who has eight children, including an 11-year-old son, Sohail, who serves tea all day long in a hotel.
“Our people are against girls’ education, and not a single girl in my family has gotten an education, although I am thinking of enrolling two of my younger sons in school,” Khan said. “Sometimes when I see other children going to schools outside our hotel, and I listen to their talk, I understand the importance of education and want my children to get an education.”
For Peshawar’s poorest children, the prospect of seeing the inside of a school building seems remote.
Many, like 8-year-old Javed, toil away their days working in restaurants, shops and business to help support their families. Javed works in a tea restaurant at the Khyber Super Market in Peshawar, making about $2 for a day’s work.
“I come early in the morning and work till 11 p.m. daily,” Javed said. “I don’t like being dirty. I want to go to school all neat and tidy. I want to have a bag full of books. I want to play games in the evening like children from rich families. But I think such leisure is not our fate because mother says we are poor.”
A similar story comes from 11-year-old Sohail, who works alongside Javed most days from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. and complained he is often beaten and verbally abused by hotel staff. He was enrolled in school only to have his father remove him in order to work.
“My father told me that education is only for wealthy, not for poor people, and we will work to earn livelihood,” said Sohail, who does the same job as his father, but in another Peshawar hotel.