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Expanding access to education for Pakistan’s poorest children

October 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Pakistan, education could help change the fortunes of impoverished families, but corruption and pressure by the Taliban prevent many children from enrolling. An alternative school system is making efforts to expand access and change attitudes towards education for impoverished boys and girls. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: closing the gap between haves and have-nots in Pakistan.

On Friday, 16-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai, considered a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, told the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner she believes equal access to education is the key.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI, civil rights activist: I have a prize in my mind that — for which I will struggle, for which I will do the campaign, and it is the prize that is the award to see every child to go to school. And I will serve my whole life for that, for that is the prize that I want to get in my life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A group of businessmen in Pakistan has found a way to advance that goal. They have built an alternative public school system designed to educate poor children, especially girls.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro’s report is part of our Agents for Change series.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Eighteen-year-old Munawara Shahabuddin is a top student, as her red sash indicates, and she’s lucky. Many children don’t attend school in Pakistan, and, on average, girls are half as likely as boys to be enrolled.

The gender gap is particularly wide in rural and tribal areas, where Taliban militants hold sway. For urban students like Munawara, who covers with a niqab when she leaves, school also is also a sanctuary from the turmoil and violence just outside the gate.

MUNAWARA SHAHABUDDIN, student (through interpreter): A couple of days ago, a guy was picked up from this area, taken away, and he was chopped into pieces and his body was thrown in the water. A lot happens, but it’s not good to even talk about it, because you make enemies.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Munawara and her 12-year-old sister, Tahira, live in a Karachi slum called Machar Colony, literally “Colony of Flies.” The stench of rotting fish pervades it.

For them, homework is real work: peeling shrimp from a nearby fishery with their mother. A 16-year-old brother is not in school and works full-time in a fishery. He has replaced the family’s father, Shahabuddin, who is now disabled, as the main breadwinner.

Like two-thirds of Pakistan’s 190 million people, this family lives on less than $2 a day.

MOHAMMAD SHAHABUDDIN, father (through interpreter): I’m sick, I can’t do anything. I can’t even feed them. I want them to be educated and make something out of their lives.

MUSHTAQ CHHAPRA, The Citizens Foundation: This is a primary school.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The founder of the school these girls attend says the solution to this family’s poverty and just about any of Pakistan’s economic and social problems lies in education.

MUSHTAQ CHHAPRA: Now, take, for instance, family planning. If you educate a girl or a man, that child, that person will never have eight or 10 children. If you come to health, hygiene probably accounts for 50 percent of health problems. If a person is educated, he will be more clean, and keep his children clean.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Mushtaq Chhapra says he and a few other successful businessmen decided they wanted to give back to society, and in 1995 they began building schools for the poor.

MUSHTAQ CHHAPRA: If you look at the construction, we try to maximize or use the materials which are locally available.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: They founded The Citizens Foundation, widely known as TCF, which built and runs this K-12 school and nearly 500 others in villages and slums across Pakistan.

MUSHTAQ CHHAPRA: We wanted to give them what our children, the children from well-to-do families, have been through and who have gotten that kind of education, with proper classrooms, books, curriculum.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Things mostly absent from a deeply corrupt public government school system these children would otherwise attend, he says, with telling consequences, like the difference in graduation rates.

MUSHTAQ CHHAPRA: The average percentage of the government’s results from the high school is in the vicinity of 40 percent to 43 percent. Citizens Foundation children have results of in excess of 95 percent.

SYED ASAAD AYUB AHMED, The Citizens Foundation: We’re not doing some rocket science here. We are doing basic stuff. We are just doing it right.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Syed Asaad Ahmed, The Citizens Foundation CEO, says TCF is a charity funded largely by donations, but it is run like a business. Every school must show progress, their goals clearly stated. A big goal for the organization is closing the typical 20 percent enrollment gap between boys and girls.

SYED ASAAD AYUB AHMED: And one of my own key performance indicators is that, is my percentage of girls increasing or not? And we are pretty close to 50/50 — 46 percent, 47 percent girls are studying in our schools. Our goal is to take it to 51 percent, and, inshallah, we will do that in the next few years.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: TCF schools have a number of amenities that are not taken for granted in Pakistan’s schools: a safe environment, clean classroom, books, desks. But perhaps the most critical, at least to get girls to attend, are working bathrooms.

In a society where tradition and modesty are important, one other decision was key to enrolling girls, made at the insistence of a parent.

MUSHTAQ CHHAPRA: She said that if you have male teachers in the schools, I’m not sending my daughter to your schools. With one stroke, we decided that we have no male teachers.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The teachers, the principal, and even the training staff is all female. However, TCF schools are co-educational, unlike most public schools. To sell the concept, the group invites parents and community leaders to visit.

MUSHTAQ CHHAPRA: When they come and see the utter respect in the way the education is being handled, the way that the boys are being taught to respect the girls, so, there is a total change of outlook and mind-set of the parents.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And TCF hopes to shift student attitudes on matters of gender.

SHAZIA KAMAL, curriculum developer: It’s called “Amal and Zain”. So, it’s the story of a brother and sister.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The foundation has begun printing some of its own textbooks. Shazia Kamal, a curriculum developer, says they’re cheaper and more updated than what’s available in the market. They encourage critical thinking and new ideas, as in this fifth-grade English text showing boys and girls playing cricket together.

SHAZIA KAMAL: They can actually play against each other. They can actually play cricket, and in doing so, these kind of messages, talk of equality, gender equality.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The messages are subtle, she says. This can be a culturally sensitive matter.

SHAZIA KAMAL: One doesn’t feel that there is any reason to rock the boat.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Founder Chhapra says threats from extremists are infrequent. But he admits there are no-go areas, notably the Swat Valley, where Taliban gunmen shot the young activist Malala Yousafzai last year.

Girls who do attend often find their lives transformed. Fatma Ayoub now teaches in a semi-rural TCF school.

FATMA AYOUB, teacher (through interpreter): I attended this school. I live in this village. In the past, nobody knew who I was, but now everyone knows me. If I go to the doctor’s office, parents, the children all call out, “Teacher, teacher” when I walk by. So I’m very happy.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Her colleague Saima Naz says many students now set their sights higher.

SAIMA NAZ, teacher (through interpreter): When they first come in, the boys have one concept in their mind: Matriculate from high school by hook or by crook and get a job as a driver. Once here, their eyes are opened. And they realize there is more to life than being a driver or going to work in Dubai.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Chhapra expects the 125,000 students who attend TCF schools will go on to be their main source of support. For now, the $20 million annual budget comes largely from individual, corporate, and foundation donors.

MUSHTAQ CHHAPRA: They will be economically powerful. They will be educated, and they will go back to their villages and their slums and look after their own brothers and sisters who are starting in that school.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Munawara Shahabuddin hopes she can be in that group.

MUNAWARA SHAHABUDDIN (through interpreter): I want to become a reporter. There are so many things that happen in this area, and nobody reports about it. I would like to create an awareness of what goes on here.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But what about the fear she’d expressed earlier about saying things that could make her enemies?

“I will be an undercover reporter,” she said.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.

You can see Margaret’s entire interview with Malala Yousafzai on our home page.