A battle for hearts and minds

17th September 2010 at 01:00
In flood-ravaged Pakistan, education can provide a route out of poverty. But families must be persuaded to allow their children - especially girls - into the classroom. At a school-building project supported by The TES, staff won't take `no' for an answer.

Rosina's mother is in tears. There are only women and children in the school, so she has pushed back her niqab, and the tears fall unobstructed down her cheeks.

Outside the school gates, children run up and down the rubbish-strewn streets of the Karachi slum. Their feet stir up dust: it dulls their eyes and mats their hair. A toddler squats in the gutter, naked from the waist down, toying listlessly with an empty plastic bottle.

Inside, Rosina's mother studies the cheerfully cluttered office - the charts on the walls, the haphazardly stacked files. She sniffs, and wipes her face with the heel of her hand.

She is going to have to withdraw Rosina from school. It is not that she does not value education. She was married when she was 12 and could neither write her own name nor even say her daily namaz properly until her school-going children taught her. But she does not want that life for her children. Rosina, her youngest daughter, is 15 now. She can read and write and even speak English. Her mother grins broadly, nose stud sparkling.

But now - and here she begins to cry again, covering her bloodshot eyes with her palms - Rosina is a woman of marriageable age. Some of the slum boys have noticed this. They have begun teasing her, making fun of her as she walks to school every day. No girl should have to go through that. There is her izzat, her honour, to think of.

Her mother pauses, tears streaming into the folds of her black chador. Oh, she would love more than anything to see Rosina become a doctor, an engineer, have an easier life than she does. But this is not about education; this is about decency. And she buries her head in her hands, and stops talking.

Half an hour's drive, and a million miles away, a group of sharply-suited men are talking about women like Rosina's mother. In the wood-panelled, silk-carpeted boardroom, an office peon brings in quiche and pasta from a nearby deli.

"The key came from a very simple woman, from a simple background," says Mushtaq Chhapra, reaching for the tagliatelle. "She said, `How can we send our girls to school when we know there will be male teachers?' She was the one who gave us the idea that we should employ only female teachers."

The men are recalling a conversation more than 15 years ago. They were a group of six friends, leading members of Pakistan's business community. At social events they would inevitably find themselves bemoaning the state of their country: as recently as 1992, 64 per cent of Pakistanis were illiterate.

"Suddenly, we thought: we should do more than just sit around talking about it," Mr Chhapra says. "When my family came here, in 1947, Pakistan was the land of opportunity. Everything that I now have, I have because Pakistan gave us the opportunity, allowed us to succeed. So I wanted to give something back to the country that gave so much to me."

The men's first thought was to invest in healthcare. Here, Ateed Riaz puts down his fork. "Did you know that 40 per cent of diseases in Pakistan are preventable?" he says. "That's almost half of all illness that could be avoided, if people only knew about basic hygiene, basic healthcare."

The more they investigated, the more they found that all of Pakistan's problems - poverty, health, gender discrimination - could be traced back to a single source: lack of education. And thus The Citizens Foundation (TCF) was born.

The premise is deliberately simple: establish good schools in areas of extreme poverty and do everything possible to ensure that children attend. Fees are kept low. There is a nominal charge of 10 rupees (8p) a month, on the basis that a paid-for service is inherently valuable. But parents can spread payments and children are given free books and uniforms. Teachers recognise that the income from child labour is often indispensable to families, and do not set homework. Out-of-school hours are for a different kind of work.

The aim is for all schools to have a 50:50 boy-girl ratio. The all-female teaching staff regularly pays visits to parents in the community, demonstrating carefully, tactfully, that they are acceptable role models for their daughters.

The first five schools were personally funded by the founding directors - if the scheme failed, they would bear the cost of the mistake. Today, 15 years later, there are 650 TCF schools across the country, educating 95,000 primary and secondary children. TCF graduates now attend medical and business colleges. One has just won a scholarship to an elite private school in Lahore. An alumni desk helps former pupils to prepare for jobs or further study.

But for the majority of TCF pupils, such concerns are still a distant unreality. In the North-West Frontier Province, indigo hills blur with the hazy grey sky and pine needles sparkle like raindrops in sunlight. Here, in Pakistan's conservative heartland, mothers in burqas fight with their bearded husbands over the need to educate their daughters. "What's the point?" is the regular comeback. "You don't need an education to raise a family."

In the frontier hills of Mansehra, TCF teachers realise that the key to the future lies in the present. "Many families don't do self-grooming," says grade four (primary) teacher Sumaira Khawas. She sits in a bright, airy classroom, large windows opening out onto terraced fields and snowcapped mountain peaks. "Children smell like, well, somebody who doesn't take a bath more than once a month. Pungent. They have nails full of mud and filth, chapped eyes, no concept of brushing their teeth."

Ms Khawas begins term by showing pupils how to wash their faces and brush their hair and teeth. She cuts their nails. On a couple of occasions, she has also cut their hair. "A lot of children are like hooligans when they come here," she says. "They fight, push, say bad words. Now, they're well- groomed, physically and mentally."

"Their manners are the biggest change," agrees Khurshid Jan, a 50-year-old widow who has been raising her three grandchildren since the death of her son. "They're clean, they say `asalaam alaikum' when they come home from school." A front tooth is missing, and her tongue catches in the gap as she speaks. "The only education I got was at the local mosque. But my children carry all kinds of books now. You need more than the Koran to have a place in society today."

It is a popular misconception that Pakistani parents want to send their children to madrassas, the religious schools often portrayed as centres of extremism. What they actually want is education. First choice is always private school, but even the cheapest charge 250 rupees (pound;2) per month. Second choice are the government schools, where 40 per cent of the lowest- income families send their children. Only those for whom this is not an option - who have no nearby government school, or who are desperate for the free food and board promised to pupils by the madrassas - will choose a religious education. Provide affordable, good-quality education, and madrassa attendance will plummet.

The problem is that the Pakistani government has so far been disinclined to do this. At a government school in Islamabad, 260 boys cram into four dark rooms. The walls are decorated with hand-drawn posters, but underneath the paint is peeling. The only light comes through an ornately carved skylight. Internal windows have no glass: if one class is listening to the teacher, the others must also be silent.

Upstairs, an additional 200 pupils attend the girls' primary. Where the boys had a skylight, the girls have only an absence of roof. When it rains, they are simply sent home.

The government gave the school 50 benches, six chairs and two tables. All other furniture, including the blackboards, was paid for using proceeds from the school tuckshop. In the nursery classroom, 51 pupils learn at desks so tightly pushed together that children must clamber over them to retrieve equipment from the other side of the room. In winter, the only heating comes from a small earthenware stove; in summer, they simply swelter.

And so it is left to organisations such as TCF to pick up the pieces. Back in the slums of Karachi, the gates swing open to let pupils out at the end of the day. Nearby, small boys with matted hair play table-football in the street. A stray dog suckles its newborn puppy in the dust.

The school, however, remains a haven of pristine calm. "I'll come to your house myself and pick Rosina up," headteacher Afshan Tabassum tells the weeping woman in front of her. "I'll drop her back home at the end of the day. But you have to keep her in school."

She ushers the woman out, and beckons in grade five pupil Halima Hussain. Halima sits down slowly, watching the ceiling fan riffle piles of paper on the desk before her. "How are you?" the head asks.

A year ago, Halima's father was killed by a speeding truck. Her nine older siblings decided that her time would therefore be better spent earning money to help the family than going to school. Halima was distraught: she loves school, loves learning. "I was crying and crying," she says, fiddling with the plaits under her hijab. "I wanted to come to school so much."

So she confided in Mrs Tabassum, who invited the family into school. There, the head persuaded them to look at the long-term. Keep Halima in school, she said, and she will ultimately be much better equipped to support her mother. Eventually, they reached a compromise. Halima would take an out-of-school job but would also continue her studies.

So, at 4am every day, the 12-year-old begins a four-hour shift peeling shrimps. It is not pleasant work. In the dank, concrete warehouse, the smell of fish clutches like a clawed hand at the throat. Halima's eyes strain to see; she regularly develops skin problems.

Then, at 8am, she goes to school for four-and-a-half hours. "The first time I did it, I felt so tired," she says. "I just wanted to go back to sleep. But I told myself, after school I can rest. That's what keeps me going. And one day, I'm going to be a teacher. They're my role-models now."

It is a long, hard battle, fought child by child, parent by parent. Mrs Tabassum has worked for TCF for 12 years. Stories such as Halima's and Rosina's are nothing new to her. She knows the uphill struggle to convince parents that education means opportunity, not loss. And she knows the frustration of pupils prematurely withdrawn from school or married young.

"There are times when I want to yell and shout and scream," she says. "It can be difficult switching off at night. I'm always thinking how to help these children. My own son is in college now - he is doing fine. So these 410 pupils are my life. They're my entire world."

Over the next 12 months, The TES will be raising money to build a school in Pakistan for some of the country's most disadvantaged children. We aim to raise pound;65,000 through a variety of fundraising activities for The Friends of The Citizens Foundation, a UK registered charity that raises funds for TCF. To donate, go to http:uk.virginmoneygiving.comTSL.

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