Bringing Out-of-School Kids To School
by Bronwyn Curran
BAI BAJNA VILLAGE, Mansehra, July 25 – Brothers Yaqub, 11, Zarin Nul, 8, and Sher Ali, 7, had occasionally wandered into a class at the local school in this high-altitude village in Pakistan’s mountainous north. But they were never formally enrolled, they never had a textbook between them, and they never learnt much. Wandering into a class was a diversion from wandering in the wheat and maize fields blanketing the surrounding hills.
They belong to a family of itinerant serfs. Their mother and paternal grandfather live off the land of large landowners. In return for tending landowners’ crops, they receive one-third of the crops and residence in a humble mud-wall dwelling. No wages are paid. Four years ago the family was expelled by the landlord of their former dwelling in Ugi, a nearby sub-district, and wandered until they found another landowner who gave them work in Bai Bajna.
Their mother, the second simultaneous wife of their father, rarely sees her husband as he spends most of his time with his first wife in a town two hours’ drive away. With no income and no property rights, they live on the edge of existence.
Aid workers who entered the remote hills around Bai Bajna in the wake of the October 2005 earthquake were told about Genta Khatoon Khan’s semi-vagrant children. The aid workers alerted Save The Children and UNICEF. After more than 10 meetings with the children’s mother Genta and their paternal grandfather Sayed Mehran, UNICEF partners enrolled the three brothers in the Bai Bajna Government Primary School. They also enrolled their little sister Rubina, who had just turned 5 – the age at which Pakistani children begin school.
UNICEF gave the Khan children a school knapsack, each packed with notebooks, pencils, crayons, sharpeners, rulers, scissors and slates. By June, the three boys and their sister were formally enrolled and attending classes.
Now they are learning Urdu, English, maths, science and Islamic studies. Sher Ali recites his ABC - haltingly.
“A, B, C, D, F, J…I…H…E,” he splutters out.
Before the intervention by UNICEF and partner Save The Children, the Khan brothers hung around the mud-wall dwelling the landowner has let their mother occupy in return for tending his maize and wheat crops. They joined their mother in the fields at harvest time. Rubina helped nurse the two youngest siblings, three-year-old Wakil and 18-month-old Shakir.
“Before we used to get bored. We felt left-out when we saw other children going to school. We wanted to go with them too. But we had no idea how to get enrolled,” said Zarin Gul.
“I love being in school now. I like getting the chance to learn things. My favourite subject is Urdu," said Zarin Gul.For Sher Ali, the fraternity of classmates is the best thing about going to school.
Without close monitoring, it’s feared the boys may drift away from the school. The oldest boy Yaqub has already stopped going to classes and has taken up work in a canteen. His mother says he’s afraid another earthquake may topple the school, like the10,000 other schools which were leveled or damaged by the October 2005 calamity.
UNICEF has committed to enrolling in school for the first time at least 30 percent of those who had never been enrolled before the earthquake.
That is in addition to re-enrolling 100 percent of those who were enrolled when the earthquake struck-almost 500,000 children.
“No child should miss out on their right to education. This emergency has given us the chance to reach into isolated areas, identify children not in school, and make every effort to formally enroll them,” said UNICEF Education Officer Hugh Delaney.
UNICEF has already established over 4,300 temporary tent schools to keep classes going and aims to build 500 permanent schools by 2009.
In all the North West Frontier Province, 53 percent of children aged 5 to 9 were not enrolled in school before the earthquake.
The non-enrolled children fall into three broad categories: girls; the disabled; and those marginalized by extreme poverty.
The Khan brothers fall under the third.
Their father has four children by his first wife and six by his second wife Genta.
Eking out a wage of around a dollar a day as a vegetable vendor, he cannot support all 10 children.
Their current landlord has given them three days to vacate. Many property owners in earthquake-affected areas are expelling their tenants so that they can qualify for housing compensation offered by the government.
Local councilors say even though school fees and books are provided by the government, poverty is the main reason for children in Shegarh council not enrolling formally in school.
“Poverty depresses them. It quashes their awareness. They don’t see the value in sending their children to school,” said deputy chief administrator of Shegarh, Shah Jee.
The second reason is inaccessibility. For the 110 villages in Shegarh council, there are 36 primary schools (16 for girls and 20 for boys), nine middle schools and four high schools.
Parents understandably are reluctant to make their children travel long distances each day to school, especially their daughters.
“When my daughter graduated to the sixth grade, she had to move to a school that was nine kilometres away. It’s very difficult for a young girl to travel nine kilometres to and from school every day,” another councilor Yaqub Khan related.
“But I know the value of education so I kept her in school. However, because of the distance, her 34 classmates from the fifth grade all dropped out.”