Nine-year-old Fahad works at a tailor shop in Peshawar with his brother to provide for their family of 11, including his six brothers, two sisters and his parents.
Making just $20 a month, his job hinders him from going to school.
“Every day on my way to work, I see students who go to school and it is very hard for me to ignore them,” Fahad told VOA. “My parents are poor and I have to work to be able to make ends meet.”
Fahad is not alone on having to trade off school for work. An estimated 3 million children have no access to formal education in the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.
“Around 3 million children are not going to primary schools. The government has worked on census to have accurate statistics on out of school children,” Mushtaq Ghani, provincial government spokesperson, told VOA.
Nearly 58 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 16 are currently out of school in KP, according to Dawn, a local English language daily. Extreme poverty and lack of infrastructure remain the main reasons behind the lack of schooling.
Continued insecurity and terrorism exacerbate the problem.
“There were 867 attacks on educational institutions in Pakistan from 2007 to 2015, resulting in 392 deaths,” according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.
Over the past 10 years, several militant groups, including Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have repeatedly conducted attacks on schools and universities across the country, particularly in the KP region.
Analysts believe that these attacks are part of an organized effort to instill fear among the masses and undermine education in the country.
“Militancy has a huge and negative impact. It made life harder and day-to-day survival is at risk in KP,” Arif Naveed, an education policy expert, told VOA.
According to analysts, ongoing counterterrorism measures in the country have also added to the problem.
As a result of ongoing military operations in the tribal region, thousands of children have not been able to attend school. The military operations have displaced over a million people in the region, making it extremely difficult to continue sending their children, particularly girls, to school.
“Many schools were demolished, infrastructure destroyed and a lot of lives were lost as a result of terrorism and counterterrorism activities in the province,” Naveed added.
Pakistan has a population of nearly 200 million people, with more than 25 percent under the age of 15.
Experts warn if the government fails to recognize the urgency in addressing education, there will be dire consequences.
“With no economic opportunities for youth, the outcome will be disastrous,” Naveed said.
Khadim Hussain, a political analyst from Peshawar, echoes Naveed’s concern, saying depriving children from education in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will have “unimaginable” results for the entire country.
“The children deprived of their right to education are potential terrorists as they can be easily brainwashed and lured towards extremism,” Hussain told VOA.
Over 60,000 people have reportedly died over the past 10 years due to terrorist attacks and most suicide bombers have been either teenagers or young adults in their early 20s, according to Pakistani media reports.
“Uneducated and unemployed youth will be an easy target for extremists and militant groups,” Hussain added.
KP government’s measures
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s government said it is serious about tackling the issue and has allocated over a quarter of the budget toward education.
“The government wants implementation of the education reforms and wants to ensure that every child goes to school,” Mushtaq Ghani, provincial government spokesperson, told VOA.
Recent statistics by Alif Ailan, an education advocacy organization in Pakistan, reveal 48 percent of primary and secondary schools in KP region have to operate without adequate physical infrastructure.
“The government has released billions of funds [Pakistani Rupees] to build infrastructure of schools, including boundary walls, restrooms, furniture, drinking water and electricity,” Ghani said. “Parents will be charged with fine or imprisonment if they fail to send their sons or daughters to school.”
However, education expert Arif Naveed is critical of the legislation and said such bills are symbolic.
Madrasas as substitutes
Parents who cannot financially afford to sending their children to mainstream education institutions, they consequently send their children to local madrasas [religious seminaries], most of which do not charge fees, and provide children with food and accommodation.
Experts say these religious schools mainly focus on religious education and every madrasa teaches religion according to its own ideology and interpretation.
“There is a possibility children coming out of these religious seminaries will be inclined towards extremist views,” political analyst Hussain said. “In every street of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there’s a madrasa. Every sect has their own religious school for girls and boys.”
Critics charge that these religious schools rely on outdated curriculum with little or no relevance to modern education.
“Government should devise reforms for religious seminaries, too. Madrasa registration and their syllabus is a big issue,” Sardar Hussain Babak, former minister of education in KP, told VOA.
A majority of parents, usually daily-wage laborers, prefer their children to support the family to put food on the table.
Because of that, some children do not go to school, either from the onset like Fahad, or later, dropping out to learn skills to work as laborers and earn money.
While pessimistic about the future, Fahad still keeps some hope that one day he will be able to live as a child.
“I want to be able to go to school,” Fahad said. But until that dream comes true, he wants to have a plan B.
“I will be a tailor in the future if I could not go to school,” he said.
VOA Urdu’s Shamim Shahid contributed to this report from Peshawar.