The topic of literacy has become a hot issue globally, with rising concerns about the fact that many children do not learn how to read and write; and that so many children across the world do not go to school. While there are tens of millions more children attending school today than ten years, ago, over 67 million children across the world are still denied this fundamental right. In Pakistan, this is an issue of grave concern, with approximately 22.6 million children aged between 5 and 16, not attending school. It is suspected that the actual figure may be much higher.
Education in Pakistan
The Pakistan Constitution grants the right to education to all 5-16 year old children, stating that it is the responsibility of the government to enforce this. According to Article 25 of the constitution: “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.”
There are a plethora of reasons why so many children don’t go to school in Pakistan, with poverty being one of the most pressing reasons. Not only does poverty limit the ability of families to send children to school as they are unable to afford school fees, books or uniform; but poverty shifts the focus and aims of the entire family to mere survival. It often means a child out of school can be another source of income or a set of hands to collect water from a far-off location, increasing the likelihood of the family’s survival.
The other side of this story is that the poorest communities lack access to schools and informal education initiatives, and sometimes even get missed from the great work NGOs and UN agencies do to tackle child illiteracy. Often the poorest communities are remote, a sizable distance from formally established schools and hospitals, and their living arrangements are that of informal settlements, with temporary shelters, lacking structure, privacy and hygiene, as well as basic facilities such as washrooms, dedicated kitchens, waste disposal mechanisms, and clean water. Moreover, these communities are sometimes made up of families who are not formally registered in-country and relocate according to season and needs of the family, creating instability.
The Power of Literacy
I have done extensive work in the development sector in Pakistan over the last ten years, especially in the sector of child welfare, education and advocating for the rights of young people. I recently visited Pakistan with Penny Appeal on a monitoring visit to assess our programmes on the ground, in my capacity of Programmes Coordinator for Asia region. Penny Appeal has a number of projects in Pakistan, and one that struck me the most was an informal education project based in the slums of Lahore under our ‘Forgotten Children’ initiative, which seeks to support children living on the streets.
The programme reinforced to me, the vast importance of literacy, and how breaking down barriers in society to education can have huge impacts on people’s identity, character and their future. Moreover, while we may obsess over the figures of children out of school, it is increasingly important to place a greater emphasis and understand the huge impact that non-formal education can have on communities who traditionally, do not accept education, but for whom this is the best way to break the cycle of poverty.
New Day School
Naya Din School – which literally means, New Day School – is located in the slums of Lahore, where there are approximately 45,000 families living across 1,300 camps made of temporary shelters. There are approximately 300,000 people living in these slums across Lahore. Each house in the camp is made of bamboo sticks, cotton sheets and corrugated metal if available. There is no electricity, a massive lack of clean water, and entire families of 7 people sleep in one room. This means in the summer, especially, it gets extremely hot, which means it creates a difficult living environment but also increases the risk of disease and illness. There are no designated facilities for washing or latrines, and no waste management systems, which poses huge health and hygiene risks. The settlements are built on unpaved, muddy land, so when it rains or people dispose of waste water, the land becomes waterlogged, incredibly dirty and dangerous. Having worked in Pakistan extensively, I have seen a lot of poverty across the country, but I was really taken aback by the extremely poor conditions people are living in. I was so shocked to see that a dirty stream, full of human waste and household garbage was just centimetres away from where people are living, and from the school.
Naya Din School provides non-formal basic education for 155 children aged between 1 and 18 years. Children attend the schools on a daily basis, with flexible timings. This means families can send their children with no restrictions, and this makes it more likely for children to be able to attend every day. Children are taught the basic concepts of reading, writing, listening and speaking. Before enrolling at this school, none of the children were able to write their names, or were even able to recognise letters of the alphabet. Now, every single student is able to read and write the alphabet, and their own names. This is phenomenal progress and has set the foundations for further improvement and development. With these small, informal initiatives, the scheme is becoming successful in eliminating illiteracy in this community.
Breaking down the Programme
As well as lessons, students learn through street theatre and story-telling sessions. This enables children to learn in a fun manner and in a setting outside of their settlements. Through theatre and storytelling, children are introduced to more serious concepts of child protection and safety, and stories always come with a moral message.
Life-skills sessions also take place, where interactive workshops are held on child rights and protection, health and hygiene, communication, making friends, assertiveness and decision-making. These sessions have enabled children to voice their concerns about their environment, and talk about what they want to achieve in life. One of the most notable changes in children has been the growth in their confidence, their skills of interaction and communication, and their general outlook and hopes for the future.
Impact and going Beyond
For me, one of the most striking elements of this programme was that it is helping get children formally registered in the country, and providing them with official birth certificates. It is so shocking to think that children as old as 15 have been living in Lahore with no official documents. Their birth was not officially recorded, which means in the eyes of the law, they do not actually exist. This has a huge impact on their access to education, healthcare, voting, and later in life, employment and travel. The right to identity is one of the most basic, fundamental human rights, but is denied to thousands of people across Pakistan. The right to personal identity is recognised in international law through a range of declarations and conventions, including from the UN, and stems from as early as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With this programme, so far 155 children have been provided with an official birth certificate, and many more will be registered in the future. This is a huge step in their lives, and has now opened up their pathways for formal education, employment, access to healthcare and to be able to easily choose their path in life.
The impact of this programme is phenomenal. For communities like this one, children are at huge risk of undertaking criminal activity, getting caught up in gangs and using drugs. The best way to break the cycle of poverty is for children to access the education system, and these basic informal initiatives, are the perfect first step. In Pakistan, in order to get admission into a formal school, having a birth certificate to prove identity is a prerequisite. The impacts of this programme are far beyond teaching children how to write their name. It has provided them a strong sense of identity; to challenge concepts of child labour and early marriage; and to understand the importance of education. Providing girls with non-formal education and life-skills may help to reduce the chance of early marriages. When girls are at home with nothing to do, parents often think the best thing to do is to get them married, often when they are still very young. The parents of all children enrolled, and others in the community have also become accepting of the initiatives, happily send their children to the school and wish for their children to continue studying to break away from their life of poverty and strife.
As I walked away from the slums of Lahore, I felt greatly moved about what a huge difference such a small initiative can make.
You can find out more about Penny Appeal’s ‘Forgotten Children’ initiative here.