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Puppet theatre welcomes children back to school in Pakistan earthquake zone

© UNICEF Pakistan/2006
Schoolgirls enjoying a puppet show performed by the Dosti Welfare Organization at the Narrah Government Girls Primary School, Balakot, Pakistan.

By Tamara Sutila

BALAKOT, Pakistan, 12 June 2006 – Schoolgirls topple over each other in a fit of giggles as they watch a puppet show performed by the Dosti Welfare Organization, a UNICEF local partner in Pakistan.

The puppet show at the Narrah Government Girls Primary School is part of a ‘Welcome to School’ campaign, an ambitious recovery initiative by the Government of Pakistan and UNICEF to get all school-age children, especially girls, back to school.

Only eight months ago, Pakistan was devastated by an earthquake. An estimated 73,000 people died and more than 3 million were left homeless. The town of Balakot, once a popular tourist gateway, was hardest hit. The earthquake destroyed half of the Narrah school’s buildings and killed some 50 students.

Since the launch of the Welcome to School campaign, temporary schools have been set up throughout the earthquake zone, bringing some 26,000 children back to school. For many, this is their first time ever in a classroom.

“We’ve worked day and night, seven days a week, to re-establish schools,” says the head of UNICEF’s field office in Mansehra district, Alhaji Bah. To help schools recover, UNICEF has provided school tents, School in-a-Box kits and recreation materials, as well as teacher training.

Narrowing the gender gap

One of the main thrusts of the post-quake education campaign is to narrow the gender gap in school enrolment. In Pakistan, girls are more likely to be groomed as wives, mothers and upholders of family honour than to become students.

Like many other girls here, Nazma, 18 dropped out of school at a very young age.

“When I was 10, my mother died and I left school to take care of the domestic work,” she recalls. “I can write some words in Urdu but I can’t read very well.”

Along with other boisterous schoolgirls and their accompanying mothers, grandmothers and older sisters, Nazma is back in school and waiting anxiously for the next puppet act – which soon begins.

“Bring a female friend to school,” says one puppet to another in a shrill voice. The girls squeal in appreciation. “Mother, I don’t want to go to school because the teacher beats me,” continues the puppet. “Don’t worry child, I will talk to the teacher,” replies the other puppet. The performance receives enthusiastic applause.

Crisis brings changes

In an ironic silver lining to the earthquake disaster, this previously neglected part of North West Frontier Province is now a hive of activity. More than a dozen international and local organizations are working together to help the government rebuild infrastructure and restore services. With the spotlight on areas such as Balakot, new ideas are filtering in.

“After the earthquake, I’ve observed many changes,” says UNICEF Project Officer for Education Yasir Arafat, who is also a resident of Balakot. “Before the emergency, it was almost impossible for a male to visit a girls’ school. Now it’s no problem.”

Nazma, her eyes twinkling with passion, is eager to speak her mind. “If I have daughters,” she asserts, “I will send them to school because I have known the hardships of not being educated.”



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