THROUGH the summer, we’ve been hearing that the battle for the soul of Pakistan is being played out against militants in the northwest of the country.
But a recent incident at a school in Karachi suggests that the struggle to define religion’s place in our national ethos will unfold in civilian spaces.
A private school in Karachi was using a textbook containing information about family planning in its seventh-grade biology class. The school claims that it had stapled together pages containing advanced content on birth control and abortion. Still, students and parents perceived the materials to be objectionable and, according to news reports, un-Islamic.
On filing a complaint, some students were reportedly expelled from the school. That decision resulted in a large parent body protest last week, which led to the involvement of the Directorate of Private Institutions, Sindh.
The DPI has since seized all the offending textbooks and mediated between the parent body and school establishment on other contentious issues such as the choice of Islamiat textbook and compulsory music classes (these, too, were deemed un-Islamic by many parents and are now optional).
On a general level, the clash between the school establishment and parent body typifies the ideological scuffles throughout Pakistani society between groups with different interpretations of Islamic morality. This particular difference of opinion almost led to the closure of a reputed educational institute serving over 1,600 students — there were some calls to revoke the school’s registration, but, thankfully, the DPI did not entertain them.
As such, this incident shows the urgent need for the government to clarify its stance on the role of religion in society and implement policies that encourage open religious debate and preserve secular and democratic principles in all social arenas.
More specifically, by raising the question of whether or not schools should have adolescent reproductive health curriculums, this incident emphasises the pitfalls of Pakistan not having a goal-oriented, long-term population policy. At what educational level should students receive reproductive health education? Should this education be imparted in schools or at home? Who should be tasked with developing a reproductive health curriculum?
None of these questions can be answered without the wider context of a state-defined population policy.
One thing is clear, though. This country’s youth desperately need exposure to reproductive health education. According to the UN, Pakistan’s population is growing at a rate of 1.95 per cent and will hit the 357-million mark by 2050.
Government statistics from 2000 indicate that the mean age at marriage for men is 26.3 and for women 22.1. But statistics compiled by the International Population Council show that 58 per cent of women in Pakistan’s rural areas are married before the age of 20, a majority marrying before reaching the legal age of 16. Overall, 32 per cent of married women in Pakistan aged between 20 and 24 were married before their 18th birthday.
Unbridled population growth combined with the trend of teenage marriages suggests that reproductive health education at the school level is a necessity.Given the backlash that the biology textbook provoked, implementing such education programmes will be no small feat. Here, it is worth noting that the offending biology textbooks were published in Singapore. Many parents thus dismissed the textbooks at the outset, claiming that they had no regard for local cultural mores and religious sensibilities.
In the parents’ disdain for the Singaporean textbooks lies the answer to the government’s quandary about how to impart reproductive health education without raising a storm: the education ministry must develop standardised curricular materials with respect for social and religious conventions.
This bold tactic has been the key to drastic reductions of the population growth rate in other Muslim countries in the region. Take Bangladesh, for example: the country’s National Population Policy 2004 aims to reduce the growth rate from 1.54 per cent to one per cent by 2010, thereby stabilising the population at 216 million by 2060.
To achieve this goal, Bangladesh has promoted contraceptive use, enabled home family planning services and — most importantly — emphasised reproductive education for adolescents.
Since 1984, the Family Planning Association of Bangladesh (FPAB), which implements reproductive health programmes, has been equipped with an Islamic Research Cell that develops youth projects and educational material in light of Quranic teachings. Where schools are insufficient to educate adolescents, FPAB mobilises peer educators between the ages of 10 and 19 to implement community outreaches that cover reproductive health issues.
Meanwhile, since 1998, the Imam Training Academy of the Islamic Foundation of Bangladesh has been training clerics to impart information about reproductive health, contraceptive use and sexually transmitted diseases — particularly HIV/AIDS — during Friday sermons and other mosque activities in an effort to reach men of all ages.
Since 1989, Iran, too, has implemented a family planning programme by convincing the public that birth control does not violate Islamic tenets or undermine family values. Reproductive health education is imparted at all levels, culminating in a requirement for all university students to take a two-credit course on family planning.
Young couples also have to participate in mandatory, government-sponsored family planning sessions before receiving their marriage licences.
In a unique twist, Iran encourages parents to impart reproductive health education to their children. Not only does the education ministry print several booklets to guide parents in this matter, certain government-funded projects also mobilise entire communities to discuss family planning.
In one instance, all the adults in a community received sex education and the children were told they could approach anyone (not necessarily their own parents) to ask questions about sexual health. As a result, Iran has seen a dramatic decline in fertility from over six children on average in the early 1980s to two births per woman in 2005.
These examples show that Islamic values and reproductive health education need not be mutually exclusive. The private school described above did not act egregiously; it was merely the victim of our government’s ad hoc commitment to population control. By implementing bold policies, Pakistan too can help its youth make informed decisions about their bodies.