By most agreed international measures, the province of Sistan and Baluchistan is one of Iran’s poorest and most deprived. The impact of this on how children experience their formative years has been the subject of repeated coverage over the years. Less attention, however, has been paid to the state of education in the province.
A large proportion of school-age children in Sistan and Baluchistan do not have a physical structure to attend classes in. Instead, they receive a basic, verbal education outdoors under a canopy, or even less; if there happens to be a tree in their village that provides adequate shade, chances are it also serves as the local classroom.
Even this meager opportunity for learning is beyond the reach of many youngsters, however. Many end up dropping out of school to earn a crust for their families, who typically survive through fuel smuggling: a risky and poorly-regulated activity that puts them into direct confrontation with the IRGC.
Every Wednesday night at 8pm IranWire hosts Persian-language discussions on Instagram Live with experts on children’s rights in Iran. This week we spoke with Abdollah Aref, director of the London-based Baloch Activists Campaign, about four decades of violations of the rights of Baluchi children. Below is a summary of this interview.
The Highest Illiteracy Rate in Iran
More than 50 percent of the population of Sistan and Baluchistan lives in villages, compared to a country-wide average of 25 per cent. Most of these villages lack basic amenities such as piped, potable water and mains electricity. In the circumstances, it comes as little surprise that schools in the traditional sense are few and far between.
Teachers, Abdollah Aref told IranWire, are sent by central government to the far-flung villages with no more than a high school diploma under their belts. “The Islamic Republic is committing a major offence here. These individuals are only there so the local Department of Education can file a positive report.
“As such, the illiterate children are still unable to read and write when they get to the higher grades. We receive a lot of reports from parents who say their children are learning nothing. Because of this, they lose any interest in it.”
The 2016 census found that illiteracy rates in Sistan and Baluchistan were the highest in the country, standing at 18.7 percent for men and 29.1 percent for women. The situation, Aref said, was harsher on the girls as in rural areas as many families do not permit their daughters to go to school in the first place. Instead, they are often married off as early as is considered feasible, crippling their future prospects.
Obstructing Civil Society in Sistan and Baluchistan
For four decades now, Aref pointed out, the Islamic Republic has persisted in selecting officials to oversee schooling in Sistan and Baluchistan that do not hail from the province themselves. “Top officials and the rank and file are brought in from other provinces. The excuse is that there aren’t enough educated individuals within the province.
“Sensitive jobs in the provincial government, city governments and other places are never given to the natives of Sistan and Baluchistan. Indeed, they’ll only give those jobs to people already associated with the regime.”
Within Baluchistan, he said, there are plenty of NGOs and other charitable organizations that actively want to build up education in the province, especially for girls. “But,” he said, “they get obstructed on a number of pretexts. When it comes to education, the government has a purpose. It is to keep child literacy in this province low.”
Iranian celebrities and household names in sports and the arts have also tried to intervene. If nothing else, Aref said, “At least now the general public knows a little more about Baluchistan. The Islamic Republic has presented it through the media, for 40 years, as an unsafe place where people are killed and get killed.
“The celebrities’ activity clarified the situation somewhat. But it also upset some people in the province, who got the impression they were being pitied, as if they were beggars. And a decent amount of help has been provided, but people are still aggrieved because it was the government that created this situation.”
In fact, Aref said, “Some of the celebrities that go to underprivileged areas to ‘help’ are actually whitewashing the crimes of the Islamic Republic. Baluchistan’s problem was not created by the people but by the Islamic Republic. Famous faces might be able to support a few families here and there, but the problem remains.”
Families vs the Revolutionary Guards
The widespread phenomenon of child labor in Sistan and Baluchistan has a number of causes, Aref said, but “the biggest issue is poverty. According to official statistics, the province has the highest poverty rate in Iran; according to the MP for [provincial capital] Zahedan, more than 60 percent are living below the poverty line.
“Every year hundreds of fuel smugglers are killed. When the guardians of the family die, it’s the children who have to go to work. Some work in farms and animal husbandry, and aren’t counted in the official numbers about child labor. Some do bogus jobs like street peddling in other cities or provinces. Some work in repair shops.
“Last week we learned about a nine-year-old who fixed flat tyres in a workshop in 40-degree heat. Our enquiries established his father had been a fuel smuggler. He was killed in the port city of Chah Bahar. The boy was the eldest of seven siblings.
“The Revolutionary Guards have warehouses and wharfs in Baluchistan that they use for fuel smuggling. They exploit the people of Baluchistan to bypass sanctions. At the same time, they kill those Baluchis who smuggle fuel, while they themselves shift tanker after tanker of fuel across the border. They’ll execute Baluchis for carrying a small amount of drugs, but tens of tons of narcotics are moved across borders under the supervision of the Revolutionary Guards.”