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“Building Back Better” After the 2005 Earthquake Gives a Boost to Girls’ Education in Pakistani-Administered Kashmir

© UNICEF/Pak09/Pittenger
Fourth-grader Zeenat Ghutam (right) and fifth-grader Iqura Rehman arrive at Mohajir Colony Government Girls’ School, which was “built back better” after the 2005 Earthquake.

By Jasmine Pittenger

MUZAFFARABAD, October 2009: Pakistan-Administered Kashmir – Nearly every day, while Mohajir Colony Government Girls’ School was being built, girls came down the winding path into the valley in twos and threes, to peek into its windows and try to imagine what was to come.

“When they were building our new school, we were already happy and excited,” says 10-year-old Zeenat Ghutam, a 4th-grade student at the school. “We knew it was for us, but we weren’t expecting it to be so beautiful. On the first day of school, a month ago, I had a feeling I don’t have words for. How can I explain what it’s like to walk into a school that’s more beautiful than our own homes?”

Zeenat’s eyes glow as she speaks. It’s not lost on her, nor on the rest of the students at the school, that to build a school like this one for girls, in the aftermath of a massive earthquake that flattened the valley, shows an important investment in learning for girls.

The 2005 earthquake was an unprecedented catastrophe for schoolchildren in Pakistani-Administered Kashmir and Northwest Frontier Province. An estimated 18,000 students were killed in their classrooms and 2000 schools were destroyed as the earthquake shook the land, in some cases sending whole mountainsides tumbling down into the valleys below.

“We were taking our tests when everything started shaking,” says 10-year-old Iqura Rehman. “The teacher said, ‘Run,” so we ran. We weren’t able to understand what was happening – not us kids, and not our families. We were thinking, ‘It is now the day of judgement.’ We thought that everything was finished. For 10 days we had nothing, no school, only fear.”

To come to school in the morning, in this village near Muzaffarabad, groups of girls wind their way down a path through green hillsides with undulating terraces. Snow-capped mountains form a backdrop to their descent. But the flowing stream the girls cross on their way to school has garbage in it, and a nearby house is surrounded by ragged old tarps. This is a poor migrant village, and it shows.

When the girls arrive, their cheeks are pink from the slight climb up the stream’s bank to the school. Their eyes are bright and curious and eager. Among the last to arrive is the school’s head teacher, an elegant woman named Lubna Safdar. Ms Safdar’s journey to the school in the morning is a group effort, since she has a muscular disorder that makes it difficult to walk on her own, and can only make her way down the winding path with help from a teacher and a young student. Ms Safdar’s disability seems to make it easier for her to relate to her impoverished students – and the girls, in turn, seem inspired by this woman who has overcome her own obstacles in life.

When Safdar remembers the earthquake, her memory is of an impotence made still greater by her disability.

“I was just sitting in the classroom, unable to get myself out, thinking, ‘Will someone come to find me?’ My own children were at another school, and all I could think about was trying to get to them, to make sure they were safe.”

The students’ memories of the earthquake are just as clear.

“We were taking our tests when everything started shaking,” says 10-year-old Iqura Rehman. “The teacher said, ‘Run,” so we ran. We weren’t able to understand what was happening – not us kids, and not our families. We were thinking, ‘It is now the day of judgement.’ We thought that everything was finished. For 10 days we had nothing, no school, only fear.”

Recognizing the importance of giving the child survivors of the earthquake a chance to focus their energy on a positive goal for the future rather than dwelling only on the fear, Safdar went to UNICEF to request a tent as a temporary classroom. Within a month, classes were being held again in a tent pitched on an area cleared of the debris of the old school. Still, parents were hesitant to send their children to class.

“So many children lost their lives in schools, so it was not easy to convince parents to send them back,” says teacher Nabila Kiani. “We teachers went from house to house, to ask parents to send their children back to school.”

Teachers like these have played an important role in helping the government, with UNICEF assistance, to re-enrol more than 428,000 children, including over 186,000 girls. Among these are about 36,000 children that had not been going to school prior to the earthquake. To ensure that children returning to school get quality education, nearly 15,000 teachers have also been trained in teaching methodology and psychosocial support. Overall, UNICEF supported the reactivation of 4,040 primary schools, among them 1680 girls’ schools. School tents and emergency supplies such as School-in-a-Box kits, blackboards, recreational kits, teachers’ furniture and textbooks were also provided.

When UNICEF Construction Officer Zahid Khan asks how they feel about coming to school now, the fourth- and fifth-grade girls break into chatter in Kashmiri. Finally the chatter dies down and the girls nod their heads at fourth-grader Shazia Ali Lone, who speaks for the group:

“We’re not scared now, because this is a new building, not like our old school, and we know it’s earthquake-safe.”

The term “earthquake-safe” is one of the first new words they learned in the aftermath of the earthquake, explains Khan. That’s because this new school, apart from being beautiful, has been also built to special standards that take into account the frequent seismic activity in the area.

© UNICEF/Pak09/Pittenger
First-graders learn in a colorful, child-friendly classroom.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, in which one old, unsafe schoolhouse after another crumbled to the ground, UNICEF seized the opportunity to “build back better.” This means that the 286 new schools that are being built with UNICEF support are earthquake-safe. These schools are also more spacious, ensuring at least one square metre of classroom space per child, as per international standards, and they promote good hygiene through sanitary toilets and hand-washing stations. This school, with its brightly-coloured furniture and freshly-painted walls and morning sunlight streaming through the windows, is a good example.

But the improvements aren’t just in the bricks and mortar. Teachers at the schools are also being trained in child-friendly methods that include interactive learning and ban corporal punishment, and that support and empower children as they learn.

“Educated women are far more likely to have educated children,” says Luc Chauvin, UNICEF Pakistan Deputy Representative. “Women with active voices in their families’ economic lives are better at ensuring that the family’s resources go toward building a more stable future. We also know that women with at least a basic education are proven to have fewer, healthier and better-nourished children. So even a little education can go a long way to help girls and their future families.”

“What we feel now is that we are attracted to come to school, to such a beautiful school,” Shazia says.

Khan asks the girls why they think a school like this has been built for them.

“So we can learn better. Because we understand that our government and our parents think it’s important for girls to go to school,” says 10-year-old Amina Bashir.

“Why do you think it’s important to educate girls?” Khan asks. The group of fourth- and fifth-graders’ answers are practical, and show how it is – or would be – helpful for them to have an educated mother:

“My mother helps me with my homework,” says fourth-grader Zeenat Ghutam. “She can only do this because she went to school. To educate a girl is to educate a whole family.”

Zeenat thinks a bit more, then says, “Also because we know that women doctors are much needed in our country.”

Development experts agree with this group of girls – in fact, one of the few things that most experts agree on is that educating girls is key to lifting families out of the cycle of grinding poverty that is evident in the countryside around this school.

“Educated women are far more likely to have educated children,” says Luc Chauvin, UNICEF Pakistan Deputy Representative. “Women with active voices in their families’ economic lives are better at ensuring that the family’s resources go toward building a more stable future. We also know that women with at least a basic education are proven to have fewer, healthier and better-nourished children. So even a little education can go a long way to help girls and their future families.”

But the dreams of these girls go much further than basic education. One more thing the group agrees on is that, if your mother has gone to school herself, it’s a lot easier to convince your parents to send you on to higher education. This is important because, out of six girls chattering around the table at the school today, one wants to be a teacher – and five of them want to be doctors.

Khan asks why they want to be doctors, and Shazia says, “To help people of our area.”

“Will you charge them a fee, or will you help them for free?”

“For people from our area, free. For others, I’ll charge a fee,” she says, an impish shine in her eyes.

The US Fund’s support to the construction of Mohajir Colony Government Girls’ School, as well as to the nearby Hussain Galian Government Public School, is giving an important boost to primary education in the villages around Muzaffarabad. Each of these two schools can accommodate up to 120 students, and 100 child-friendly schools like these are now complete. An additional 186 are on the way.

What this means for the girls at Mohajir Colony Government Girls’ School – who came down that winding path every day to see their school as it was being built – is a powerful reason to hope for a better education and, quite possibly, for better lives in the future.

 

 

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