Last month, well-known Pakistani pop star, Shehzad Roy made an appearance at Harvard to talk about music, activism and his new documentary series, Chal Parha (Urdu for: Come, Teach), which highlights the extensive issues plaguing Pakistan’s education system.
Having visited over 200 schools across the country, in an interview with DAWN, Roy stated: “In each episode we highlight an issue from public schools, for example, corporal punishment, medium of instruction, population, textbooks, curriculum, teachers.”
He added, “I want to share the lessons that we have learnt; both good and ugly. We want people to know the obstacles standing in the way of improving the structure of education in government schools while also highlighting the remarkable individuals committed to the teaching profession. These people prove the power of individual efforts.”
Broadcast on a local television channel, GEO TV, the show has gained immense popularity, fast making an impact in a country where, according to the non-profit Alif Ailaan, the government spends just 2.4 percent of its national GDP on education and where just over half of children enroll in primary school.
Mariam Chughtai, the founder of Harvard’s Pakistan Student Group told The Diplomat that the singer was invited primarily because the student group “is committed to changing the discourse on Pakistan at Harvard from one of terrorism and challenges, to that of resilience, art and social change.”
“[Roy] embodied for us an activist who is using music to make an impact on the ground, which is why his discussants, Professor Ali Asani and I were able to have a conversation with him in light of how artists have historically played a key role in keeping governments and rulers accountable,” Chughtai said.
“Roy himself spoke of the main learnings he has had in his journey of Chal Parha, including clippings from his show which illustrated these learnings. They represented both strengths and weaknesses of society in being ready for change on education.”
Alongside his music career, which, over the past couple of years, has veered sharply into the direction of socio-political commentary, Roy has managed to rather successfully integrate both his music and humanitarian work.
Having launched Zindagi Trust, an NGO that focuses primarily on education for the underprivileged in Pakistan, in 2003, Roy made headlines in local and foreign media when the musician brought Bryan Adams to Pakistan in 2006 as part of Roy’s Rock for a Cause charity concert in the wake of the tragic earthquake that killed thousands and left many homeless in Pakistan.
Apart from raising awareness about the appalling condition of public schools in the country, Roy also hopes to bring about considerable, tangible, and long-lasting change within the national education system itself.
Roy told Dawn, “We have installed thumb-printing attendance machines in the five provinces to bring transparency to the issue of teacher absenteeism. We are now collecting this data and are happy to report that teacher attendance has increased considerably in these schools. Similarly, in the episode on corporal punishment, we are proposing a law banning physical abuse in schools and we plan to diligently pursue this issue in the media.”
The particular episode on corporal punishment that Roy mentioned features a young girl, Malaika, whose eye was damaged after her teacher threw a pen at her for not paying attention in class.
The episode prompted the approval of a bill on corporal punishment by the National Assembly in March that prohibits the physical abuse of children in educational institutions in Pakistan. Once the bill becomes law, an individual found guilty of administering corporal punishment in an educational institution in the country will be liable to pay a fine of Rs. 50,000, serve a one-year prison sentence, or both.
Given the state of public school education in Pakistan today, there is hope that Roy’s high-impact initiative will act as a much-needed impetus for change and reform of the country’s education emergency.
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: [email protected].