Dutch Government and UNICEF provide new impetus to education for the children of Chunal Bung, AJK
By: A Sami Malik
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, May 2010 – It takes eight-year-old Irsa half an hour to walk to school every morning. Living in the hilltop village of Chunal Bung, she and her friends climb down the steep slope, towards the shining red roof gleaming in the early morning sunlight. “We can see it from everywhere in the village,” Irsa says excitedly. Indeed, she can see it from her own home, and it has become a symbol of her dearest ambition: to complete her education and teach at the same school.
Irsa and her classmates are enrolled in the brand new Government Girls Primary School in Chunal Bung, a small village of 6,000 people near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-Administered Kashmir. Five years ago, in October 2005, the original school building was destroyed by a catastrophic earthquake which took the lives of 73,000 people in the region, including 18,000 schoolchildren. UNICEF immediately mobilised emergency relief and rehabilitation operations, including urgent activities to ensure that children were able to continue their education.
Since then, with support from donors, government counterparts and implementing partners UNICEF has built 425 schools, 144 permanent and 281 transitional shelters that directly benefit 40,000 children including 18,000 girls.
Mehzub Bibi, a woman in her early fifties, is the head teacher at the Chunal Bung school. In nearly thirty years of teaching in this community, she has seen many ups and downs in the struggle to achieve universal education. “More than twenty years ago, a windstorm brought down the two-room building of the only primary school in our village,” she recalls. That time, she started teaching children in her own home. Later, the earthquake badly damaged the school, but Mehzub Bibi knew the importance of an uninterrupted course of education. “I had to shift the school to an open area. Then to a transitional shelter and now, after four years, we have this beautiful school building like we had never seen before,” she says.
The Chunal Bung school was constructed by the UNICEF construction team with generous support from the Government and people of the Netherlands. Completed at a cost of Rs 8 million (about US$ 96,700) the school has three large classrooms, a principal’s office, storage areas, an airy veranda and six toilets. Large enough to accommodate over 200 students, the school is presently benefiting 175 children.
Nearby, the local boys’ high school is also under construction. Though feeling sorry for the older boys, Mehzub Bibi is pleased that her primary school was completed first, even though construction began later. “I feel privileged that our school is complete and running, praise Allah,” she says. Ensuring that all children complete a full course of primary education is a key Millennium Development Goal, and in a context where girls’ education is historically under-valued, ensuring that school facilities are available is an important prerequisite to its achievement.
Mehzub Bibi is excited about the prospect of getting more children in school. “We expect more admissions after the summer when the new session begins. The community is eager to send their children here. We have formed a School Management Committee and have Parent-Teacher Meetings every month. Our main issue is the scarcity of water. There is only one stream of water in the village and for the school toilets, we collect rainwater.”
UNICEF is committed to ensuring that newly constructed schools are Built Back Better, with good water and sanitation facilities, spacious classrooms and able to withstand earthquakes. More, UNICEF is committed to creating a child-friendly environment for education, in which teachers, parents, students and community members are equally committed to the well-being of the school. The School Management Committees, are an important step towards this: they identify gaps (such as the water supply at Chunal Bung) and seek to address them.
UNICEF also promotes student participation and teacher training to improve inclusiveness and quality of education. To help achieve the child-friendly model and ensure its sustainability, UNICEF intends to survey all newly constructed schools and transitional shelters, and collect information on school enrolment, community perception and involvement, teacher availability and health services.
Today, the red roof of the new Government Girls’ Primary School Chunal Bung dominates the village landscape. One of its students, 13-year-old Muneeba Naseer, well remembers the devastation that overtook the region in 2005. “We were in the school assembly saying our prayers when everything started to shake,” she recalls. “The school wall collapsed and three girls were trapped under it. Our teacher and her son moved the stones and got the injured girls out. We didn’t know what had happened.”
Later, Muneeba discovered that she had lost her mother, grandfather, a three-day-old sister and a three-year-old brother in the earthquake. For many years she lived with relatives and could not continue her education. It was only when schooling resumed in the new building here that she was able to rejoin. Despite having lost several years of education and self-conscious about being the oldest student in Grade 5, Muneeba is determined to complete her secondary education and attend college in Muzaffarabad. For children like Muneeba and Irsa, the shining roof of the Chunal Bung school stands today as a symbol of the future of education and opportunities they can build after the devastation of October 2005.