SAMRA stretches her arms, as do the other schoolgirls during their morning assembly energiser activity. They jump, twist and clap. In several other schools in Muzaffargarh and Rahim Yar Khan, girls like Samra prepare interactive role-playing activities, plays and presentations regularly each morning. The administration and teachers think that this helps to refresh students’ minds and makes learning activities more engaging. Their belief in employing unique pedagogical tools is paying off.
These schools are implementing a programme geared towards reducing gender imbalance by empowering the most marginalised segment of the weakest group: girls belonging to the poorest households who have dropped out of school. Pakistan’s education system is broken, with a massive 23 million out-of-school children. Deprived of a fundamental right as prescribed under Article 25-A, few economic opportunities are later available to these girls. Their problems are made worse because they bear a double brunt of financial and cultural barriers.
Many of these young girls like Samra had dropped out because of a lack access to schools, poor quality of education, child labour and child marriage. The problem of the girl child is burdened with a multitude of difficulties. During my interaction with Samra, she narrates her story of the struggles she faced before the programme’s social mobilising teams visited her home. Samra and her sister had to convince her father to allow them to enrol in a nearby public school. This in itself had seemed like a victory because girls of her age (barely 13) were already being married — their father wished the same for them. Moreover, Samra could offer better assistance in household chores or help provide financial support by working as a maid in other homes. The concept of education as every child’s fundamental right eludes families in such social environments.
Targeted interventions are needed for girls who are not in school.
Their hopes, however, became bleaker once enrolled in the school. Samra’s mother recalls her daughters coming home agitated and not wanting to go back the next day. They complained that teachers paid little heed to the classes and instead made them do their chores such as cleaning. Months passed by and their performance declined even further. Teachers, when confronted, blamed the girls’ inability to grasp concepts. Eventually, they opted to stay at home.
A few years later, Samra heard of another opportunity. Mobilising teams were in the neighbourhood discussing a new initiative in the area. This programme was different. Not only did it place much-needed importance on learning, it was specifically designed for girls from financially challenged backgrounds who had dropped out. It provided a second chance to become part of accelerated short- and long-term programmes, as well as life skills and vocational trainings. This would help in improving basic literacy and numeracy skills, and provide these young girls the platform to prepare for their PEC Board examinations.
Acknowledging the need of more concerted effort to retain the interest of these girls (owing to a greater likelihood of dropping out), teachers chart out pedagogical methodologies unique to their circumstances. Regular activities are supplemented by interactive learning sessions on relevant issues such as gender sensitisation, child protection, online safety, health and nutrition, etc. Classrooms, meanwhile, are equipped with smart boards and tablets to fully unleash benefits of ICT tools.
When learning becomes an interactive, two-way process instead of rote methodology and monotonous lectures, the girls become committed to learn. They become confident, eager to acquire knowledge, and relive dreams and hopes once lost. Their progress reflects the sincere effort they have put in: in the last PEC Board examinations, girls who benefited from these interventions scored an average of 65 per cent with an average passing rate of 96pc. Muzaffargarh outperformed the other two programme hubs with an average score of 70pc.
There are many organisations that play an intensive role in Pakistan in assisting the government realise their SDG goals. If we are to bring all 23m out-of-school children into the enrolment net, a serious effort is needed from both civil society and the government. The PTI leadership must exhibit exemplary reform in education to not only improve the national curriculum and assessment, but also learning outcomes. This ensures that we bring in children who have never enrolled and those who have dropped out, and also protect those at a risk of dropping out due to the unsatisfactory conditions of existing schools. Pedagogical methodologies play a critical role in this; for a transformed education sector, the student-teacher relationship needs to be considered a significant variable alongside access, quality, facilities, etc.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2019