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As Pakistan continues to reel from December’s horrific school attack, its government has initiated a crackdown on terror across the nation and instituted new security measures at schools. Last week, the Army Public School in Peshawar—site of the massacre that left over 150 dead—was reopened to students.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s Pakistan visit happened to coincide with the school’s reopening. Yet Kerry’s visit was mainly geared toward reinforcing U.S. support for counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. While Kerry’s visit to Pakistan and support of the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue are laudable, critics have called for stronger rhetoric on Pakistani human rights. Many of the government’s actions—including, for example, the reinstitution of the death penalty and the use of military trials for terrorist suspects—have drawn criticism from international human rights organizations.
Yet there is another equally troubling facet of Pakistan’s policy response to the December 16 attack: the fact that schools that do not meet the onerous new school security requirements—which include barbed wire, security guards, and surveillance cameras—were not permitted to reopen. According to the New York Times, only 118 of the 1,380 private schools in Peshawar met the new guidelines, and police in Islamabad prevented some schools from reopening last week.
Security of students and teachers is, of course, critical. But the closing of schools should only be a temporary measure in Pakistan. Keeping children out of school can have debilitating effects on the country’s economy, stability, and security in the long term. Children without access to education are more likely to face limited economic opportunities in the future, and lack of economic opportunity is a primary factor in environments that foster extremism.
Yet it is natural for parents to fear for their children at school in the wake of December 16, and Pakistan should address those fears more quickly to ensure that children can return to school safely. If such safety standards are not met, parents may see keeping their children—especially girls—out of school as the only way to protect them.
Pakistan, the United States, and Pakistan’s other allies might consider the steps Afghanistan has taken to protect students as a model for Pakistan’s future. In the summer of 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution addressing the attacks on Afghan school children and calling on other countries to support Afghanistan in combatting these attacks. Then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai introduced a steering committee, consisting of representatives from across Afghanistan’s ministries, to coordinate the government’s response to attacks on children.
John Kerry and his Pakistani counterparts announced the launch of a new working group for the Strategic Dialogue: a working group on education, science, and technology. This creates an opening for the United States to offer more robust support for Pakistan’s efforts to improve security at schools, while not sacrificing access to these schools.
It is understandable that parents and governments want to care for their children and prevent any such terrorist attack from ever happening again. Yet keeping schools closed is not the answer. By mobilizing resources from across government ministries, Pakistan should work to bring schools up to the appropriate security standards swiftly, thus returning children to school and ensuring a future of prosperity, stability, and opportunities for children to reach for their dreams and fullest potential.