Efforts to bring girl students back to school bear fruit in Sindh’s two districts

MATIARI:28 December: It took three years to 15-year-old Raheela to resume her studies when she found activists from her Jamal Dahiri village and organisations working in the area to bring back the girls to schools who had shunned their studies after passing primary classes because of absence of secondary schools nearby.

Raheela Rafique Ahmed is among the five siblings of a single-parent family. She says she has three sisters and a brother.

“My father died a few years ago and now our family is being taken care of by my mother and maternal uncles,” she says.

The number of girls enrolled with a school has risen from 150 to 400 in a relatively short period

Raheela says she passed her fifth grade three years ago from Talibul Maula Fellowship Girls Primary School in Jamal Dahiri village, and she could not continue her schooling because there was no secondary school in her village.

“The secondary school was available miles away and we had no means to travel as we are a poor family,” she says.

Raja Mohsin Ali is a 35-year-old peasant living in the same village. A father of four sons and a daughter, he is a multi-faceted human being who juggles with too many tasks.

“I live in Jamal Dahiri village, but work for educating children in all parts of Matiari district,” says Mohsin, who has got honorific ‘Raja’ (king) for being extremely passionate about his activism that he does for free.

“I am a volunteer who wants to see every child getting education as I could not go to school beyond class 8 because of poverty and protracted illness from which my father could not recover during my childhood,” says Mohsin.

He says when, despite his passionate desire to receive higher education, he could not, he made it a motto for his life to work as extensively as he could to ensure all children, girls in particular, go to school and beyond.

And, he picked Raheela with several other girls to resume their studies.

“I began it from my village. It was disgrace to see the plight of our village’s school. It was a virtually haunted building where only 72 children were enrolled in 2014. Within three years, we have increased that number to 315 now.”

He says earlier in 2014 there were just eight girls who were enrolled with the school; their number has swelled to 70 now.

“We go to the parents and convince them to allow their girls to get education. This year, 23 of our girls, some of them are those who could not make it because of poverty and family pressure, have been admitted to a secondary school in Bhanoth town.

“Nine of those girls go to school with their relatives on motorbikes, seven others go on Qingqi rickshaws, and for the rest we are trying to make arrangements.”

He says those girls who are still reluctant to resume their studies in the secondary school will certainly be inspired by the girls who have already got enrolled.

Raheela says a team of a local non-governmental organisation, Sindh Community Foundation (SCF), visited her village and discussed the issue relating to the girls’ education with the villagers.

“They assured our elders that girl’s education is a must and requested them to allow their girls to get secondary education for which they promised that they would arrange school uniform, books and any other thing that was required.”

Listening to such heartening assurances, says Raheela, “My Amma (mother) said ‘OK you go to school. Study, how long you desire to’. This gave me immense happiness and courage.”

She says she has got admission to a secondary school in Bhanoth town, a few miles from her village. An older cousin of her takes her on a motorcycle in the morning, leaves her to study there and get her back home.

“I am one of the 23 girls of my village enrolled with that school this year. A number of them are those who had abandoned studies chiefly because of the reasons similar to mine,” she says.

Jawed Hussain of the SCF said they helped 20 schools in Matiari and Tando Mohammad Khan which aimed at getting girl students who had abandoned their studies for various reasons.

“It is a USAID-assisted programme in which we increased enrolment and brought 400 girls back to schools. They have also been encouraged with leadership skills while the teachers have been trained for better educational skills,” said Mr Hussain.

Arjun, a resident of Lambio Patel village near Nazarpur town in Tando Mohammad Khan district, said more than 20 of their girls had rejoined the secondary school after getting required uniforms, stationery, copies and bags provided under the same scheme.

“We are peasants and construction workers who could not afford to finance for education of our children. But, we would not stop our girls from going to schools if they get books and other stuff,” said Arjun.

“We have decided as the whole village to ensure our girls go to school,” said Ramesh.

Gul Bibi Jamali, head teacher at the Government Girls High School, Bakhar Jamali, Matiari district, is a spirited soul, who has innate desire to improve the educational profile of her school, which has not been inspirational for many years.

She says poverty has been the chief cause of the fact that shows most girls cannot go beyond the school level. Besides, she says, feudal, rather tribal, mindset still reigns supreme in the region where her school is situated, which, as well, discourages most girls from getting higher education.

“This is the region where dropout ratio of girl students has been disturbingly high,” says Gul Bibi.

“Most girls belonging to poor families would not attend schools in the months of August, September and October until last year. These are the months when cotton-picking season begins. Their parents who are involved in picking cotton would not allow them to go to school and got them assisting in picking the crop.”

She says the schoolteachers would not force the girls or their parents to attend the classes, because, that would have caused their permanent dropout from the school.

“Still now, most of the girls in our school get engaged when they are in grade nine or 10 and they are married off soon after.”

She says the number of girls in her school has increased after the girls were offered training to get entrepreneurship skills.

“This programme allows girls to conceive and implement their own ideas. They sew clothes as they have been provided with markets,” she says.

“It is such an innovative idea that a number of girls have abandoned picking cotton; and their parents support them,” says Gul Bibi.

She says some girls have opened beauty parlours and others have started business of selling traditional caps.

“These girls are selling chholay (chickpeas), pakoray (fritters) and biryani. They have turned so confident now,” she says gaily.

She says the number of girls enrolled with the school was 150 quite recently has climbed over 400.

“All this has surprised me a great deal,” she says.

Mohsin says he has formed a group of young men who persuade parents and keep a vigilant eye on schools in Bhanoth and other parts of Matiari district.

“We have worked extensively against the ghost teachers and got rid of most of them. Schools are like children for us. We should take care of them like our own children. We are 11 men in the group who follow this philosophy.”Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2017.