Making schools safer for children, teachers and communities in Pakistan

‘Resilient, informed and safer school and communities’ programme is preparing students to deal with emergencies effectively

Fatima Shahryar/A. Sami Malik
Hamna and other girls students looking at the floor plan of their school building
15 August 2018

Quetta, Balochistan - August 2018: Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s largest province Balochistan, is located in the most active seismic zone of the country. Earthquakes are frequent and the city was almost destroyed in 1935 by a jolt recorded at 7.7 on the Richter Scale. Most recently, a 4.4 magnitude earthquake struck the city in November 2017 causing loss of life and property. Apart from being prone to natural calamities, Balochistan has also been the hub of human-induced disasters over the last many years. Security related incidents in the province, of which many have taken place in Quetta, have created an environment of fear and uncertainty amongst the residents. Densely populated residential areas, commercial centres and even high security zones have been subject to attacks. Some of these incidents have also damaged educational institutions.    

“BANG…a huge blast shook the ground and rattled doors and windows of our school building,” says Hamna Hashmi (13), a 9th grade student at the Government Girls High School (GGHS) Mission Road Quetta, Balochistan. “It was an unusual day to begin with. When we arrived at the school that morning, the watchman at the gate told us that the school was closed. As we turned back, the van that brought us had already left. We went inside the school and sat in our classroom with a teacher trying to contact our families using her phone. Then, the most terrifying thing happened.”

At 8:45 am on June 23, 2017, the sound of a huge blast ripped through the city of Quetta. A vehicle laden with explosives had blown up at a busy intersection just outside the office of the Inspector General of Police, Balochistan. The GGHS Mission Road is just across the street. Within minutes, ambulances and security personnel were all over the place. Many were killed and injured. Nearby buildings, including the GGHS Mission Road, were shaken and damaged.

The 27th night of the holy month of Ramadan, is a night for Muslims to offer special prayers. Usually, the day after is a working day. The announcement declaring it a holiday came late in the evening and although the school management tried to inform the students and teachers, not all could be reached. Many students came to school and left upon learning that it was closed. Hamna and a few others could not. Some of the teachers were also in school for staff related work.

“The deafening sound of the blast, followed by people shouting and human body parts falling over in the school courtyard was so terrifying, that we started screaming and crying. We did not know what to do. We had never experienced anything like this in our lives. And of course, we were not trained in how to react in a situation like this. But now we are. We are trained to handle such situations sensibly, in an orderly manner and without panicking,” says Hamna.

Girls during a training session for emergency preparedness
Shakeel Ahmed, a trainer from the Balochistan Boys Scout Association trains the girls for emergency preparedness at the Government Girls High School, Mission Road Quetta, Balochistan

When disaster strikes, natural or human-induced, the most vulnerable and often most affected are children. Thus, they suffer from long-lasting psychosocial stress and the process of education is disrupted. To ensure that every child has access to education in a safe environment, UNICEF with generous support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), initiated the ‘Resilient, Informed and Safer School and Communities’ programme in Pakistan.

The programme started in 2014 and its implementation has continued in a phased manner in three provinces: Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Under this programme, UNICEF has partnered with respective provincial governments and civil society organizations to train students, teachers and community members to protect themselves in emergency situations.

The objective of the programme is to increase the capacity of children, parents, teachers and community members to prevent and cope with disaster, so that its effects could be mitigated. The programme also aims to increase advocacy around sector policies, plans, coordination and communication for education and its role in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). 

In 2016, the Safer School Programme was initiated in three districts of Balochistan: Quetta, Jafferabad and Naseerabad. In collaboration with the Department of Education, Balochistan, UNICEF’s implementing partner, Balochistan Boy Scouts Association started conducting school-based DRR trainings.


Hamna and other girls taking part in a mock emergency drill
Hamna and other girls from the DRR training session, demonstrate how to apply a bandage to support broken arm of a younger school mate, during a mock drill at the Government Girls High School, Mission Road Quetta, Balochistan.

"I have helped several people with what I have learnt in our DRR trainings. It makes me feel like a Superwoman!"

Hamna Hashmi, 9th Grade Student

“The first training was held at our school in March 2018 and several refresher courses have taken place thereafter,” says Shaista Fehmid, the teacher in-charge of supervising school-based DRR trainings. “The training sessions have really helped us organize and prepare for unforeseen emergency situations. On the day of the blast in Ramadan and at the time of an earthquake a few years back, students and teachers ran out of the classrooms, pushing and jumping over each other. Many received minor injuries that could have been easily avoided. Now we are trained and conduct regular drills during which children form lines, move out of the classrooms in an orderly manner, gather at well-marked spaces in the school and exit the building through emergency exits only.”

So far, over 14,000 students and 600 teachers have been trained in 100 schools of the Balochistan.  Additionally, 1,500 members from communities have also been trained to participate with students and teachers in mock DRR drills to effectively promote safer school through community engagement.

In line with her teacher’s views, Hamna says, “The first aid trainings have been particularly helpful. One day, I was going to the market on a motorbike with my father, when a car hit us. I was safe, but my father’s leg was injured and he could not move his foot. From what I have learned in the trainings, I quickly took off my scarf, and wrapped it around his foot securing it in a safe position until the ambulance arrived and we took him to the hospital. I have helped several people with what I have learnt in our DRR trainings. It makes me feel like a Superwoman, or at least her best friend”, Hamna says giggling.

Girl students share their experiences regarding an emergency training with their teacher
Girls share experiences and feedback with their teacher, Shaista Fehmid, after a session of the emergency preparedness training at Government Girls High School, Quetta District, Balochistan.

UNICEF will continue to advocate with the governments of the three provinces to scale up school-based DRR strategies, and further strengthen it in the education sector plans and approaches.

The “Safer Schools Programme has had a positive impact on students, teachers and communities,” says UNICEF Education Officer, Sagheer Ahmed. “School-based DRR trainings have been very helpful in boosting students’ confidence as they feel empowered to handle emergencies using the techniques that they have learned. The Balochistan Boy Scouts Association has done a great job by adapting these trainings as part of their regular activities and introducing the Safer School approach to children and adolescents across the province.”