In Pakistan, children like Ali are learning that it’s never too late to become a student
Youth Skills in South Asia
Lahore, Pakistan – In Pakistan, children like Ali are learning that it’s never too late to become a student
For most of his childhood, Ali spent his days outside the clasasroom.
“Today, I work at a general store,” said Ali, who is now 16 years old. “But a few years ago, I spent most of my days selling corn on the cob. I would go from one street to another, ending my days outside of a local school. I would wait with the other sellers until we heard the school bell ring – and as soon as it did, the gates would open. Children would come running out in groups, laughing, and buy food from us before they walked back home.”
Ali was just one of 22.8 million children in Pakistan who had dropped out of school – or never started in the first place. Today, Pakistan has the second-highest number of out-of-school children in the world, with 44 per cent of girls and boys missing out on education.
“I would always wonder what it was like to study,” Ali said. “And what it was like to go to school, to read and write.'
"I could see all these children moving toward a bright future while I lived my life doing the same thing. Day after day, I hoped to make enough money to help my parents make ends meet.”
Ali and his customers were almost the same age. Under other circumstances, they could have been friends – and because of that, Ali couldn’t refuse when students asked him for corn (and later, products at the general store) for free.
“I stopped making friends a long time ago,” Ali said. “But there was this one boy, Shahzeb, who would actually buy from me. Slowly, we got to know each other and became friends. We would always meet briefly, as he had to go to work, too.”
One day, Shahzeb asked Ali if he wanted to go to school.
“It was as if he could hear my thoughts,” Ali said. “I told him I would love to, but I was too old to study. Shahzeb told me there was a school where age did not matter. He studied there with children of different age groups, some of whom were much younger. He didn’t even have to pay a school fee.”
This school was the UNICEF-supported Accelerated Learning Program in Lahore, which was designed for children who had dropped out of school or never attended. Inside the centre, students study an accelerated curriculum to get them back on track, regardless of their age.
“The very next day I visited the school with my mother,” Ali said. “The teacher welcomed me and asked me to join the following day. It was like a dream come true – I could not believe how lucky I was. I started working at another store nearby so I could attend school in the mornings.”
Programmes like Ali’s are helping children and families realise it’s never too late to start learning.
“I still remember the day I learned to write my name – the best day of my life. Every day from then on has been life-changing. The teacher said I’m one of her best students, and I want to continue being one. I use all my free time to study and learn as much as possible.”
Once Ali finishes his studies, he wants to become a policeman.
“I want to be there for people, to serve them and to save them,” Ali said. “Everyone respects a man in uniform, and I see myself wearing the uniform one day too and being looked up to by people in my neighbourhood.”