A student sits on floor while others stand beside a wall in a madresa (religious school) on the outskirts of Karachi
A student sits on floor while others stand beside a wall in a madresa (religious school) on the outskirts of Karachi Reuters

One of the most troubling – and perhaps overlooked – elements of next month’s potentially historic general election in Pakistan is that in a country seeking to transfer from one democratically elected government to another for the first time ever, millions of people cannot read or write.

According to Unesco, only about 56 percent of Pakistani adults are literate -- in contrast, South Asian neighbors India and Sri Lanka boast literacy rates of 74 percent and 97 percent, respectively.

Literacy rates in Pakistan are even lower for the rural poor and for women. Unesco estimates that some 70 percent of Pakistan’s rural population is illiterate, with even higher rates for women.

While the illiterate cannot be barred from voting, Saadat Ali Khan, a research associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, warned in Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper that illiteracy plays into the hands of corrupt politicians who try to win votes on the basis of religious, tribal or ethnic affiliations, rather than on their contributions to the nation.

“Lessons are to be learned from history,” Khan wrote.

“During the Dark Ages of Europe, the church purposely kept the people uneducated so as to continue its influence without facing any accountability. One dreads that the pattern in Pakistan is similar, where the ruling elite keeps the people uneducated in order to exploit them for their selfish motives.”

Indeed, in Pakistan’s rural hinterlands, voters (most of whom are illiterate) often vote for candidates who have paid them off with money or food or promised favors.

“Illiteracy undermines the very foundations of … democracy,” warned Unesco in its report on Pakistan.

“Illiterate citizens inevitably lack in awareness and reasoning skills. How can we expect a voter to make an informed decision when he/she is unable to even read a newspaper? Illiterate voters are easily misled.”

With the elections looming in Pakistan, Saadat Khan highlighted the importance of the media’s role.

“Considering the fact that [much] of our population is uneducated, the votes cast will be largely influenced by the mass media,” he said.

“It is imperative that the media portrays an unbiased opinion through print and television programs so that the public can make an informed decision.”

Pakistan faces many obstacles in educating its people as its school infrastructure is in a shambles.

According to Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, a strategic policy adviser to cricket star and presidential candidate Imran Khan, the average number of years that a Pakistani spends in school is just under four years -- versus 5.1 in India, 6.8 in Malaysia and 12 in the United States.

“Pakistan’s schools need a radical rebuilding and modernization program as 59 percent of schools do not have electricity, 33 percent do not have drinking water and 40 percent do not even have desks,” he wrote of the dire underfunding and underdevelopment of the education sector.

Pakistan, if it holds any faint hopes of solidifying its fragile democracy, will also have to overcome deep-seated cultural values in order to educate all of its people.

“Education is one of the key priority areas of the government of Pakistan, but to increase the overall literacy rate of the country, it is essential to change the mindset of the communities, especially in this patriarchal society,” said the United Nations resident coordinator in Pakistan, Timo Pakkala.

Not surprisingly, political parties have promised to tackle the high illiteracy rates in Pakistan –the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party has promised to more than double the country’s education budget to 4.5 percent of GDP from 2.2 percent; and to raise the literacy rate to 85 percent.

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party seeks to raise the literacy rate to 80 percent, while Amir Syed Munawar Hassan, the leader of Pakistan’s biggest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has promised 100 percent literacy within five years.

These would appear to be overly optimistic targets in a country wracked by endemic political instability, official corruption, power shortages and seemingly endless sectarian violence.