NO doubt Hunza, known for its fruit orchards, lofty mountains, panoramic meadows and breathtaking beauty, is a major tourist attraction, but it is equally interesting to explore the educational initiatives that have empowered the local community there and set an example for other areas.
Those who are familiar with the difficult terrain and relatively scarce resources in Hunza would be pleasantly surprised to know that the literacy rate in Hunza is around 77 per cent. This must have been unthinkable when the first primary school was established there in 1913 by the British in India. The single-most important factor that transformed the educational scene in Hunza was the contribution of Aga Khan III, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, who convinced the then Mirs of Hunza state to place greater emphasis on education.
It was in 1946 that some 16 schools were established. They were called the Diamond Jubilee schools and they set the right momentum for bringing changes to education in Hunza.
The second important initiative came when the Pakistan government started opening public schools in the Northern Areas, including Hunza. The demand for education grew but the number of schools did not meet educational requirements. With people finding that schooling was accessible two more problems were becoming visible the quality of education and education for girls.
The third important initiative in Hunza was the establishment of a quality school for girls whose sole criterion of admission was merit. The Academy, with hostel facilities, was founded in 1983 when Karim Aga Khan laid the foundation of the academy. He said he hoped that the Academy would, “provide a genuine foundation for self-generating progress in the future”. The establishment of the Academy was a strong motivation for the opening of private schools focusing on the quality of education.
The fourth initiative to have an impact on educational life in Hunza was the establishment of community schools. These schools were a welcome addition as they gave the local community a sense of participation and ownership. In 1991 a model community school, Al-Amyn Model School, was established in Gulmit, a beautiful village of Hunza. This school helped re-establish the broken linkage between school and home. Here parents and grandparents are invited to share their wisdom with the younger generation. Parents come to know that their knowledge is not obsolete and that the younger generation can benefit from it. The success of Al-Amyn heralded the establishment of a number of community schools over the years.
The fifth initiative was the establishment of the Karakoram University in Gilgit. A number of students of Hunza are benefiting. The university may also create jobs for the local population.
The sixth factor contributing to the quality of education is the role of the different Aga Khan organisations that have played an effective role in the improvement of education by establishing schools and empowering them through capacity-building measures, and by facilitating students through scholarship. One initiative was the establishment of the Professional Development Centre in Gilgit. The centre helped train a number of teachers from Hunza by offering short- and long-term courses.
The seventh factor is the rising awareness among the local people who have come to view education as the passport to enhanced opportunities in life. There seems to be urgency in terms of acquiring education. Parents in Hunza are convinced that the best thing they can do for their children is to help them get a good education. There is a growing interest in higher education for girls. Parents are willing to send their daughters to distant cities e.g. Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar etc. for quality education. It is an approach that distinguishes Hunza from the rest of the Northern Areas.
Lastly, there is a cordial relationship among the different stakeholders. There seems to be a good working relationship between the directorate of education, the Aga Khan organisations, the local community and foreign funding agencies. It is this collaborative approach that makes things happen.
Hunza's educational story has many lessons for other areas of Pakistan where talent is not properly exploited. It shows us that difficulties and challenges can be overcome if the leadership has political will and if the community is trusted and involved in planning and the execution of educational plans.
The writer is director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.