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The Road to School

© UNICEF-Pakistan/2006/Sutila
The UNICEF-supported puppeteers promoting education in Balakot

By Tamara Sutila

BALAKOT, Pakistan, May 2006 – The yellow dirt road to Narrah Government Girls Primary School jostles its way past a make-shift cricket ground, a new graveyard and half a dozen small tented camps for internally displaced people. A sign for ‘Hotel Serenity’ dangles off its base near a bend in the road.
“We’ve worked day and night, seven days-a-week to re-establish schools."A semblance of tranquility pervades this part of northern Pakistan, which only eight months ago was hit by a devastating earthquake. An estimated 73,000 people died and more than three million were left homeless. Balakot town – once a popular tourist gateway to trout fishing and hiking in the surrounding hills and valleys – was razed to the ground.

Balakot’s tragedy hasn’t crushed the human spirit. On the site of the old Narrah girls school – now cleared of rubble and the bodies of the 50 students that died when the school collapsed – school girls topple over each other in a fit of giggles as they watch a puppet show performed by UNICEF’s local partner, the Dosti Welfare Organization.

The puppet show is part of a ‘Welcome to School’ campaign, an ambitious recovery initiative by the Government of Pakistan and UNICEF to get 100% of school aged children, especially girls, back to school and keep them there.

“We’ve worked day and night, seven days-a-week to re-establish schools,” says the head of the UNICEF field office in Mansehra district, Alhaji Bah.

More than 3,000 temporary schools for boys and girls have been set up since the launch of the campaign a month ago. Because half of the school buildings were destroyed during the earthquake, UNICEF has supplied school tents, school in-a-box and recreation kits, and has helped train teachers and revitalize parent-teacher associations.

As a result of the campaign, around 26,000 children are now back in class, some for the first time. In this rural and conservative area, primary education enrollment rates were already amongst the lowest in Pakistan before the emergency. In Mansehra district, 58% of boys and 39% of girls were enrolled in primary schools and only 37% of women could read and write.

One of the main thrusts of the ‘Welcome to School’ is to narrow the gender gap in school access and enrollment. Girls and women in Pakistan do not have the same status as boys and men. While boys have more freedom and are expected to become providers, girls are groomed into wives, mothers and upholders of family honour. Parents therefore place more value on educating their sons. If a girl makes it to school, she is very likely to drop out when she reaches puberty and is ready to get married or is ripe for purdah – seclusion -  in the family home.

“I was going to a school at young age,” says 18 year-old Nazma - who has come to the school event with her younger sister, “But when I was 10, my mother died and I left school to take care of the domestic world. I can write some words in Urdu but I can’t read very well.”

Back at the puppet show, the boisterous school girls and their accompanying mothers, grandmothers and older sisters are waiting in anticipation for the next act.

The puppeteers, clad in black from head to toe - expect for the brightly coloured puppets in their hands - spring out from behind a school tent.

“Bring a female friend to school,” says one puppet in a shrill voice to the other puppet. The school girls squeal in appreciation. “Mother, I don’t want to go to school because the teacher is beating me,” continues the puppet. The girls are quieter, memories of caning – a common method of disciplining children in public schools – vivid in their minds. “Don’t worry child, I will talk to the teacher,” replied the second puppet. The girls clap enthusiastically.

There seems to be a silver lining to the earthquake disaster. This previously neglected part of North West Frontier Province, where poverty levels are second highest in the country, is now a hive of activity. A dozen or more international and local organizations are working together with the government to rebuild infrastructure, basic services and livelihoods. With the spot light 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, and a resident of Mansehra district, “If you’re male, it was almost impossible to visit a girls’ school before the emergency. Now it’s no problem.”

The exposure to different ways of being seems to be rubbing off on girls and women too. Nazma, her eyes twinkling with passion, is eager to speak her mind. “If I get daughters, I will send them to school because I have known the hardships of not being educated.”



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