Child Friendly Schools Draw Children to School in Pakistan's Quake Zone
By M. Ali Fahim
MANSEHRA: When asked what she likes best about her new school, 12-year-old Moazzama doesn't hesitate a moment. "The bathroom!" she exclaims. "The new furniture," adds Humaira, her classmate in grade 5.
These are small but important changes. In October 2005, the Government Girls' Primary School in Baffa Battagram was badly damaged by a catastrophic earthquake which struck the northern areas of Pakistan, killing 73,000 and leaving 3 million homeless. About 18,000 children were killed in their classrooms, and the educational system was destroyed. This was one of 2,000 schools destroyed or damaged past repair.
Baffa is a remote settlement of 500 households almost 60 kilometres from the nearest town, Abbottabad. Amidst green hills under a clear blue sky, boys and girls now go eagerly to their reconstructed schools, built back better, stronger, and more child-friendly than before by UNICEF and its partners.
The Government Primary School Dhamber Eid Gah in Baffa was also badly damaged by the earthquake, and had to be demolished by the education department. Today, the pink and blue structure stands tall amidst golden cornfields. "Today our school is the best in the area!" claims 11-year-old Fakhar Islam, a grade 5 student. “We have everything," he says. "A safe school building, furnished classrooms, school stationery, water and teachers.”
UNICEF and its partners are building 160 quake-resistant and child-friendly primary schools. Aside from bringing students back to school, a priority was to reach out and enrol children who have never attended school before, including girls, orphans, and disabled children. In Baffa, this strategy has been a success. “Before the earthquake we had fewer students, but now the school is buzzing with 144 children,” Fakhar says proudly after leading the morning school assembly.
A key aspect of rebuilding the school and attracting students was the role of motivated volunteers from the community. Sixty-five year old Bibi Rehmat is one such volunteer supporting UNICEF activities in Baffa, where she chairs the Parent-Teacher Council. As an elder of the village, she is in a strong position to guide parents. “Our family has lived in this area for ages and I have access to every house," she says. "Parents, particularly mothers, respect me and take my advice seriously.”
In Mansehra District, where Baffa is located, six such schools have been reconstructed by UNICEF and partners. Again, following the build-back-better policy, the intent is to construct stronger buildings. “The building structure is a framework of reinforced cement concrete beams with a steel roof. It is capable of safely withstanding high seismic forces,” explains the project officer for construction at the UNICEF office in Abbottabad, Saqib Salman. The schools are equipped with full water and sanitation facilities, and strictly confirm to international standards. “Ramps have been especially put in place to facilitate easy access and movement of a child with disability,” Mr Salman says.
UNICEF’s major donors for Education activities in earthquake-affected areas in Pakistan are the Australian Government through the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAid), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the European Union and the Government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Government Primary Schools in Baffa Battagram and Dhamber Eid Gah, as well as other four schools in the district of Manshera, have been rebuilt by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Humanitarian Aid Section.