Balochistan, Pakistan’s vast and underpopulated southwestern region, is rich in natural resources, but also lawless, poor and vulnerable to recurring sectarian and separatist violence. In addition, relatively few children in the province, which borders Iran on the west and Afghanistan on the north, attend school on a regular basis, guaranteeing a future mired in poverty.

According to a report in Dawn, an English-language Pakistani daily, more than 2.3 million Baloch children -- out of a total of 3.6 million school-age youths in the province -- do not go to school. Ghullam Ali Baloch, the education secretary of Balochistan, told Dawn that children in his jurisdiction also score poorly on other social measures, including literacy, health, sanitation and access to safe drinking water.

Dr. Malik Baloch, the chief minister of Balochistan, admitted the dismal scenario for children, but vowed that “we will bring back these kids to school.” To that end, the provincial government has committed increased funding for the educational sector, not only to build more schools and hire more teachers, but also to reform existing "dysfunctional" schools in the province.

There are some 12,600 primary, middle and high schools across the province, employing some 56,000 teachers. But Education Secretary Baloch alleges that at least 2,000 of these schools are not functioning properly and at least 3,000 of these teachers are not performing their duties, some of them not even showing up for work. “I have directed the education department to take strict action against absent teachers,” said the chief minister.

However, some independent sources in the province claim the numbers are far worse than what the government has divulged. Mujeebullah Gharsheen, president of the All Government Teachers Association, told Dawn that he estimates that more than 6,000 Baloch schools are non-functional and more than 5,000 teachers do not even appear in the classrooms, nor are they qualified. "A large number of teachers in [the provincial capital city of] Quetta and other parts of Balochistan have been working [with] fake degrees in educational institutions,” Gharsheen said. "Even in Quetta city there are 700 teachers working [with] fake degrees. They enjoy complete impunity.” 

The Society for Empowering Human Resources (SEHR), an anti-poverty activist organization, estimated that nearly half (47 percent) of children of school age in Balochistan have no access to education, and fully 1 million children have never attended school even once in their entire lives. “If we fail to bring these children back to schools, it would be disastrous,” warned the chief minister.

Dawn explained that in particularly marginalized and poverty-stricken corners of Balochistan, some parents send their children to madrassas (Islamic seminaries) due to the absence of functioning public schools. “Madrassas provides food, accommodation and other facilities, something which [government-run public] schools cannot,” Niamatullah Khan, an education activist, said. “Madrassas teach Islamic education and provides all facilities to my son,” a parent named Haji Muhammad Yar in the Pishin district, near the border of Afghanistan, told Dawn.

Some parents and others in Balochistan complain that government-run schools are underfunded, underequipped and staff are underqualified. Even Education Secretary Baloch admitted that many teachers are taking their salaries but not performing their jobs, adding that only 5 percent of the schools had “proper rooms” and equipment. “There is no education in government-run schools,” said Mehmood Khan, who works at a private TV station. “Despite limited resources, I had my children admitted in a private school since the teachers are doing their jobs.”

Under the administration of former military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, some 3,000 madrassas were registered in Balochistan alone. But Dawn estimated that there are more than 10,000 “unregistered” madrassas operating in the province. However, it is unclear if the madrassas are providing significant education beyond a knowledge of Islam and the Holy Quran. Meanwhile, private schools are prohibitively expensive for most Baloch parents.

Those who cannot gain admission to madrassas must work to help support their families. Making things worse for Balochistan is the seemingly endless battle between the Pakistani army and Baloch nationalists who demand either complete separation from the state or autonomy (which Islamabad will never agree to, given, among other things, the vast potential wealth of Balochistan’s untapped gas, oil and resources). The endless chaos and violence has prompted many teachers and other qualified professionals to flee the dangerous region. “There is serious dearth of teachers in Baloch areas as result of the growing insurgency,” said Niamatullah Khan.

Further, the feudal attitudes of some conservative rural Baloch also discourage the attainment of education. “People in remote areas still consider education as un-Islamic,” Niamatullah Khan added.

But it is poverty that may serve as the largest obstacle to education, as small children must work to help feed their impoverished families. The Express Tribune newspaper reported child labor is widespread in Balochistan with no effective legislation in place designed to ban such practices. For example, the International Labour Organisation said that some 500 children are working in dangerous coal mines in the Loralai district of Balochistan. “Children below the age of 14 and even [as young as] eight in some cases are working in coal mines,” said ILO Senior Program Officer Farrukh Waseem Mirza. “Interestingly, a majority of the kids have migrated [here] from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa [province].”

Pakistan’s government has not issued a detailed study on child labor since 1996, when it was revealed that 3.3 million children in the country were working. Balochistan accounted for one-sixth of that figure, although the province accounts for a far smaller portion of nation’s total population. In Quetta, the Express Tribune reported, children toil as garbage-collectors, carpenters and even as automobile mechanics. “We have identified sectors where children are working as laborers. These employers are risking children’s health,” Mirza said. According to SEHR, more than 10,000 children in Quetta are working as laborers, 60 percent of them garbage-pickers. The vast majority of these children in Quetta are believed to be Afghan refugees.

The ILO has drafted a bill called the Prohibition of Child Employment Act which remains subject to approval by the Balochistan Assembly.