Giving adolescents a second chance in Balochistan

Non-formal education centres give children like Safeerullah a shot at education

A. Sami Malik
Safeerullah participating in his classroom
15 September 2018

Quetta, Balochistan - September 2018: For Safeerullah Khan, the day begins even before dusk. After saying his morning prayers, he tucks his belongings under a wooden shelf, puts on his worn-out joggers and runs to the main road to catch public transport. Then he hops onto one of the many commercial vans speeding to a suburban area where the city’s biggest fruit market is located.

Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, is famous for its fruit. Countless number of trucks from various parts of the province arrive at the city’s fruit market at day break. Fruit and vegetable cartons are offloaded, counted, strengthened by putting metal strips on them, and then sold to local fruit vendors. In the wee hours of the morning, this is where thousands of people earn their livelihood by working as labourers – some of them children.

"I always wanted to go to school but my parents wanted me to work."

Safeerullah prepares to go for work
Before dusk, Safeerullah tucks up his belongings under a wooden shelve, puts on his worn-out joggers and runs to the close by main road to catch a van that takes him to the city’s largest fruit and vegetable market

Safeerullah is only 14 but he has already seen the tough side of life. His father, the only breadwinner of the family, died four years ago, leaving behind a widow and eight children. The family lives in a modest two-room house in a poor neighborhood. Neither Safeerullah nor any of his siblings have ever been to school.

Since the death of his father, Safeerullah and his older brother have become the family’s breadwinners. Socio-cultural barriers and lack of education restrict their sisters within the four walls of their house.

“I always wanted to go to school but my parents wanted me to work in the fruit and vegetable market with my father and older brother,” Safeerullah tells. “Anyway, after my father’s death, I did not have a choice.”

“Every morning, I go to the market, which is located 10 kilometers from our house. I put metal strips on fruit cartons so they don’t break open during transportation. I load the cartons on to commercial vans to make some extra money.”

Safeerullah working in the fruit & vegetable market
From early morning till around 1 pm, Safeerullah works in the fruit and vegetable market putting metal strips on fruit cartons, numbering, making an inventory and loading them onto commercial vans that carry them to the city centre.

One year after his father died, Safeerullah had a surprise he never expected -- a lady came to see the family and asked his mother to let him learn.

Because Safeerullah had never been to school, he could not enrol in the regular educational system. But the lady, who turned out to be a school teacher, said that there was still an option for him: non-formal education centres.

23 million children out of school

For many years, UNICEF has been supporting the Government of Pakistan to put children back in school through non-formal education services. This gives a second chance to the nearly 23 million Pakistani children who have never been to school or dropped out – one out of two school-age children.

The centres offer special methodologies to help boys and girls catch up with their studies for free. They operate with more flexible hours, making it easier to convince parents to send their children. For instance, Safeerullah’s mother agreed to send him only after being told that he could continue working in the morning, and go to the centre in the afternoon.

The centres teach an accelerated curriculum, helping young people catch up with the years of schooling they lost and reintegrate the mainstream education system.

UNICEF currently supports 400 non-formal education centres across Pakistan thanks to generous funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). 15,000 children have benefited from the project in the province of Balochistan alone so far, including Safeerullah.

A crucial task to ensure the success of the programme is to convince families to send their children to the centres. This is what Raheela Jabeen, the lady who visited Safeerullah’s house, does. Every day she teaches at the Non-Formal Education Centre in Ittehad Colony where Safeerullah studies. Once the classes have ended, she visits local families whose children do not go to school.


Safeerullah writing on the blackboard in his classroom
At the ALP centre in Ittehad Colony Quetta, Raheela watches over as Safeerullah resolves a math equation. He is particularly good at maths and will soon be taking his primary level exams

"Now that I know mathematics, I can also number the cartons and make an inventory. As a result, I earn twice as much!"


“Many children are not in school because their families are either too poor, or don’t understand the value of education,” she says. “This is a conservative society and it is not easy to talk parents into sending their children, especially girls, to the centre. Every day I go door to door and tell them why it is good for children to study. This is how I found Safeerullah and many others who are now learning at the centres.”

Raheela says that Safeerullah has a gift for mathematics, and will soon graduate from primary education. What he has learnt at the center has already helped the boy improve his living conditions.

“I used to put metal strips on fruit cartons and load them in the vans, earning 300 to 400 rupees (USD $2.5 to 3) a day,” says Safeerullah. “Now that I know mathematics, I can also number the cartons and make an inventory. As a result, I earn twice as much!”

Safeerullah plans to go on studying in secondary school, where he should be able to attend classes only in the afternoon thanks to a double shift system. His mother no longer objects to his studying as it has already helped raise the family’s standard of living.

Safeerullah has also become a role model for others.

“Some of the boys who work with me were impressed by my ability to read and write, and how I was able to earn more,” he says. “They have started enrolling in the centre as well.”

Thanks to the programme, UNICEF is hoping to reach many other Safeerullahs.