x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Malala shooting shows the battle to get Pakistani girls to school

Outrage, prayer and a surge in education for girls is sweeping across Pakistan after the shooting of a Pakistani schoolgirl.

Girl students stand around teacher Rukhmina Abdul Rahman as she writes a daily timetable on a blackboard on the second day of a new school term at the BEFARe School #103 in Khattak Pul in the Shamshatoo Refugee Camp. Photo by Rebecca Conway
Girl students stand around teacher Rukhmina Abdul Rahman as she writes a daily timetable on a blackboard on the second day of a new school term at the BEFARe School #103 in Khattak Pul in the Shamshatoo Refugee Camp. Photo by Rebecca Conway

She was shot as she headed home at the end of lessons, leaving the school in northwest Pakistan that she had so desperately wanted to attend.

While she lay critically injured in a military hospital, a Taliban faction claimed responsibility for the attack on 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, in which two other schoolgirls were also shot. But outrage at the October 9 attack has spread across Pakistan, sparking protests, prayer vigils and condemnation of the shooting of a girl who has been described as "a beacon of light". Malala was brought to the UK on a UAE medical flight, where she is getting specialist treatment.

Nationally and internationally recognised as a champion for the rights of women and girls in Pakistan, Malala's hope that every girl should have the right to go to school is echoed in projects across a country in which the female literacy rate is just 46 per cent, and only 53 per cent of girls are enrolled in school. But teachers and students fight daily to get as many girls as possible into the classroom in the face of all kinds of challenges, not just militant.

Yasmin Begum smiles from under a white and blue headscarf, her eyes animated, as she talks about her passion for the school she runs near Peshawar, in Pakistan's Khyber Pukhtunkwa province.

"I can see the contribution I am making to the lives of these children and their families. It is not something abstract, it's right here in front of my eyes."

A teacher for 25 years, Begum has devoted her career to bringing education to hundreds of girls who live in the Shamshatoo refugee camp, where thousands of families originally from Afghanistan have lived for more than 30 years.

A sprawling settlement of mud-walled homes, markets and agricultural plots, the five camps that make up Shamshatoo house an estimated 100,000 Afghan refugees, whose families fled first a Soviet invasion, and then civil war, in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s.

Begum is one of a group of community leaders here who is striving to provide education for girls in one of Pakistan's most conservative communities, going beyond the classroom to transform local attitudes.

The lessons held in the tiny, whitewashed building in Shamshatoo's Khattak Pul camp are inspiring Begum's students to dream of becoming doctors or teachers, in a society where women traditionally adopt roles within the home.

Lubna Bano, 7, and in the second grade, is driven by a potential return to Afghanistan.

"I want to work really hard at school so I can become a doctor. Then I want to go back to Afghanistan and help the women there.

"There are many difficulties there and sometimes women are ill and they have no help. I want to change that," says Bano.

Before efforts by the likes of Begum to educate the children of the area, teachers and community leaders say, such ambitions were rare, if not absent, in the young women of Shamshatoo.

"Almost all the Afghan families here are Pashtuns," Begum says. "It is a much stricter society than the Tajiks of Afghanistan; they are more open, about education, about women, about a lot of things. So it is a challenge to change the attitudes of many families here in the camp."

Shamshatoo has traditionally been a stronghold of the Hezb-e-Islami militant group, led by the former prime minister of Afghanistan Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The group still commands a significant following among the camp's residents, and maintains control over large sections of it - but allows girls' education to continue.

The Khattak Pul school was set up in 1984 by two Afghan refugees, and later received funding from the German Basic Education for Afghan Refugees (BEFARe) programme, now run with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, providing teachers' salaries and school supplies.

Schools like this do not receive state funding, yet are critical to the overall education effort in Pakistan, where the government spends less than 1.5 per cent of GDP on the sector. Almost a third of Pakistani school-going children attend privately run institutions like the BEFARe school in Shamshatoo.

Despite non-governmental support, Begum says convincing a traditionally conservative society unused to the concept of girls' schooling was something of a battle, with parents often wary of an education system many may have been unfamiliar with.

"Back when I started here, it was a difficult time. We had to convince parents that education was important for their children; many were hostile to the idea.

"It was widely believed in the community that if girls go to school, they will become shameless and disrespectful," she says.

The complaints they received were varied - from the curriculum itself to the environment at school to objections over the use of images to teach children.

The teachers at Khattak Pul and other schools started a campaign to reach out to families. By highlighting the substantial Islamic sections of their curriculum, they sought to ease concerns that students would stray from religion.

"When we started, we had to ask people, 'please send your daughters to school'," Begum says. "Today, fathers and mothers come to the school with their children, asking us to enrol them. In this community, that is a big change."

The continuing success of the school, where 252 students are currently enrolled, rests on the efforts of the eight teachers, who make regular door-to-door trips in the area to talk to parents about educating their daughters.

One main outcome of this effort has been greater financial support for the school, with local families donating money and supplies to ensure lessons continue.

For community leader Azam Khan, who runs two other schools in Shamshatoo, gestures like this are vital to sustaining the momentum for education that has built up over the years.

"The community has a direct stake … and has made the school its own in a way," Khan says.

The family of every student at the school pays 30 rupees a month, which is collected under the "community" head of the school's budget.

"Whenever repairs or improvements are needed and approved, the community fund is used to pay for them," Khan says.

The school has hired two teachers to cater to the growing student body in recent months, benefitting from the financial flexibility provided by a community fund.

It is not just the teachers and community leaders who work hard to keep the school running. Between classes, the girls sweep the small, pebbled, courtyard, and chase each other along the walkways that run the length of school building, which houses six sparse classrooms.

Teachers here admit supplies and materials are desperately needed. During lessons, the girls sit in neat rows on the floor of the dimly lit classrooms. Colourful, hand-made posters adorn the walls, displaying the alphabet or pictures of animals, but the rooms lack the bookcases and tables and chairs found in the country's government-run schools.

The girls, though, remain desperately keen to learn, eagerly waving their hands in the air each time a teacher asks a question. And despite their young ages, many girls here are already looking to future, with many keen to return to Afghanistan and work there.

Some students have already made that dream a reality. More than a dozen are now teaching in Afghanistan. Some of them regularly send messages to their former teachers through relatives still living in Shamshatoo. Other schools have had a similar impact.

"When I started my language and computer school in 1999, it was unimaginable for girls to go to school, let alone learn about computers. Many considered it a grave sin," Khan says.

"From 2007 on, we've had dozens of girls come to learn English, and how to use computers. When they go back to Afghanistan, they can find jobs as interpreters, work in banks, and even open their own schools."

Despite resistance over the years, many families understand the difference an education will make for their children, having been through decades of hardship in Afghanistan and as refugees in Pakistan.

"For every family that is skeptical about sending children to school, there is another that sees boys and girls coming out of school and becoming teachers, getting jobs," says Khan. "These parents don't want their children to suffer like they do. They want a better future for them.

"I think it is a very significant development that people from this community, from this culture, are seriously thinking about education for their daughters," Khan says, something he believes the attack on Malala has drawn great focus towards.

"Malala has done great services for the country, and beyond. Before this attack, there was just Malala. But after, looking at my students' reaction and of students in Afghanistan who prayed for her, everyone is determined to follow her path."

The strongest advocates are the girls themselves, taking education back to their homes, and helping their families understand why going to school matters so much.

"Me coming to school is a big issue with other people in my family. My father supports it, but other people, like my uncles, ask me why I come to school," says Arifa Shahzada, 12, and in the seventh grade. They say it is a shameless and dishonorable thing for girls to be going out of their house to study."

Echoing Malala Yousafzai, Arifa beams defiantly under a neat white headscarf.

"I tell them I will still go to school."