KARACHI: “I want to be a pilot because aeroplanes can go freely wherever they want, I can fly out of here,” said eight-year-old Sara, sitting upright in her crisp new blue and white checkered uniform, unable to contain her excitement to see her new school.
Sara has been languishing in jail since past five years with her mother but on Saturday, there was an anticipation of a new beginning that involved books, colours, toys and a hope for a brighter future.
Just outside the jail premises, a store room has been converted into a school for children below the age of 10. The room’s yellowed walls have been painted with cartoons, the floor cushioned with a jigsaw puzzle pattern and shelves stacked with colouring books, blocks and soft toys have been brought in.
This was the Early Learning Centre (ELC), inaugurated at Karachi Central Jail by the Legal Aid Office (LAO), an NGO, which has been working for the rights of prisoners since 2004. It is headed by Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam.
“We have designed a separate curriculum for the centre keeping in mind the peculiar environment the students live in,” said Sundus Nasir who will be teaching at the ELC. She had formerly been a teacher at the Karachi Grammar School.
“I had to train the children two to three days prior to the inauguration for a small performance which involved learning poems, and to my surprise they all showed an extraordinarily quick pick-up and a very strong willingness to learn,” said Ms Sundus.
Nine-year-old Aliya dreams of becoming a doctor. She is not the only child inside the prison with high aspirations for future. Incarcerated behind iron bars for no fault of their own are currently 18 children who have only seen life inside the confining walls of the barracks.
An informal school had been set up inside the prison in past but it fizzled out soon. “So we all wanted a school which was outside the jail premises because at the end of day, jail is a jail,” said senior superintendent of women prison, Sheeba Shah.
Little progress has been made in the past for children in prisons. Although the constitution entitles all children between the ages of five and 16 to free education, there are no laws to ensure education of children inside prisons and no social welfare system to safeguard their rights, according to Justice Nasir Aslam.
“There are no shelter homes where these children can be sent. The SOS schools only take children of mothers who serve a longer time,” said Barrister Haya Emaan Zahid.
When mothers of the children were brought in to look at the single-room learning facility, many of them were left speechless. “It was always my late husband’s dream to educate all our children. I’ll now fulfill his wish,” said Sania, mother of two children enrolled at ELC.
Names of mothers and their children have been changed to protect their privacy.
Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2015