Gauda Hussain from Shikarpur, Sindh has got his three children enrolled in a school this year. He'd heard about the enrolment campaign, seen banners around town, even seen announcements on television. But he had not thought of enrolling his own children, until a teacher from the local government school visited his house and convinced him.
Rehmani is also sending her youngest daughter to a school about 2 kilometres from her village. "I didn't educate my other six daughters and now they are too old. But I don't want my last one to miss this opportunity to better her life. Now that we know we don't have to pay for tuitions and textbooks, it is a big burden off us."
For children living on the fringes of poverty, the primary school enrolment campaign initiated by the Sindh government in collaboration with UNICEF has given them a real shot at education. According to UNICEF figures, half the children between the ages of 5 and 9 in Sindh, one of Pakistan's four provinces, are out of school. There are serious gender and urban-rural disparities. Only 47 per cent of girls in the rural areas of Sindh go to school, compared to 71 per cent boys. Rural Sindh, in fact, lags behind other parts of the country in almost all education indicators.
There are a number of social and infrastructure problems that keep girls in Sindh out of schools. Many schools are too far away from their home. Where schools do exist, many are shelter-less and lack basic facilities, including water and toilets. Absenteeism, frequent transfers and fewer female teachers compound the problem. Even parents who want to send their girls to school are faced with issues of the safety of girls, especially if they have to travel long distances. The non-availability of middle and secondary schools is also cited by parents as a reason for not sending their girls to primary schools. Also, schools tend to have non-flexible calendars, which do not allow for leave to take care of siblings, harvesting or family events.
The government seemed unsure about how to proceed. This is when UNICEF stepped in, in 2004, with a pilot project to promote girls' education in four districts of Sindh. This Sindh government-UNICEF partnership achieved excellent results in just one year, when more than 30,000 girls were enrolled in four districts. (Many, in fact, were enrolled even after the admission period was officially over.)
This unprecedented success with education for girls was achieved through a mass awareness programme launched through radio messages and social mobilisation at the district levels. Teachers, headmasters, preachers from mosques and healthcare workers were all involved in the campaign. The recruitment of boy scouts for interpersonal communication activities also worked well. Along with this strong communication strategy, an Education for All plan was developed for interim support, based on a household survey conducted by UNICEF's partners. Orientation and training programmes were also organised for female teachers. UNICEF also provided funding for the installation of hand pumps, and the construction and repair of latrines.
The success of the pilot project convinced the Sindh Department of Education to try some of the successful strategies in all districts of Sindh. With technical and financial support from UNICEF, a strategy was designed and implemented for celebrating August 2005 as 'Enrolment Month'. The campaign began on August 1 and went on well past mid-September.
Slogans - 'Educate your children, enrol them in schools'; 'Educate your daughters, avail scholarships for girls'; 'Education is free' - could be heard throughout the province. Stickers and pamphlets were distributed, which even those who could not read were eager to snap up. A rally - led by officials from the education departments, political and community leaders, teachers and students - swelled by the minutes, with more and more people joining in. They passed through alleys and service lanes, making sure the message was heard in each and every house in the village. Similar rallies were organised in all districts of Sindh during the campaign.
In many towns, the cable and national television channels, FM channels, print media and advertisements on rickshaws were used to relay various announcements. Messages about free tuition and textbooks, uniforms not being compulsory and encouraging families to enrol their primary school-age children in government schools were all over town.
Teachers cleaned and beautified schools to welcome the new entrants. "It was a good way to celebrate the start of a new phase of life for the children who are stepping into formal learning," says Raana Syed, Chief, Sindh Field Office, adding: "It, in a way, acknowledges and honours information and knowledge."
In the process, some schools got their toilets repaired and some were white-washed perhaps for the first time. In Parha Colony, Tharparkar district, the beautification was carried out by the Kolhi tribe (a Dalit Hindu community). "This backward community will be encouraged to seek education too. Events like this are a message to all communities that education is an equal right," said Headmaster Mashooq Umrani.
Syed believes that the success of their campaign has broken the myth that parents in rural areas do not put a premium on educating their daughters. "There is a small (and fortunately diminishing) segment that still believes in early marriages and put children to work to substitute family income. However, increasingly, there is a growing realisation among communities that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty."
Octogenarian Saeeda Haji, for one, knows the need to educate the girl child. She enrolled her two granddaughters in primary school. "It will benefit not just them, but the generations to come," she says wisely.
Numbers are still being tabulated and statistics tallied, but indications are that a substantial number of children have been enrolled as a result of the Enrolment Month campaign. The real challenge, though, lies ahead - keeping the enrolled children in school. Experience from around the world has proven that once the matter of universal access to education is resolved, countries face an equally daunting task - ensuring the quality of the school system, including training the teaching staff. The education department also faces shortage of space, and inadequate provision of free books and teachers. If these issues are not tackled quickly, the education department may have to begin counting the dropout rates.
Meanwhile, some strategies are already underway, like the recruitment of more teachers, and conducting a survey of how much furniture or infrastructure the schools require. Providing free books on time is another priority area.
By arrangement with Women's Feature Service