Empowerment Through Education

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As a board member for Developments in Literacy (DIL – an organization that promotes student learning in South Asia) I collaborated with New America to host DIL’s Founder and CEO, Fiza Shah, and Sheereen Sial, DIL’s Project Manager in Pakistan, for a discussion on “Empowerment through Education in Pakistan”. (click the link to the see the webcast)

DIL was created to educate and empower underprivileged students by operating student-centered schools and provide teachers with quality curriculum development training. The New America event, focused on DIL's student-centered work in teacher training and women's empowerment, as well as the role education can play in curbing corruption and violent radicalization.

Focusing on education in Pakistan is of particular importance given the December attack on a Peshawar school resulting in the death of over 130 individuals, mostly children. There is a lot of nuance associated with education in Pakistan, however, the type of work conducted by DIL is largely overlooked by the media. Rather, the media at large discusses South Asia, particularly Pakistan, under the lens of terrorism or poverty. Instead a shift in focus on the region could reduce, and possibly eliminate, the rampant poverty and terrorism issues. Ms. Shah discusses how meaningful education is effectively the only viable pathway to socio-economic empowerment in Pakistan, with each additional year of schooling increasing an individual’s earning by 10 percent. Yet, despite increases in access to education in Pakistan, the population largely remains uneducated and has a high dropout rate with some 25 million children not completing primary school. Even more disheartening is lowering female literacy rates, as girls drop out at a rate twice that for boys.

When DIL initially began opening its schools in Pakistan, the organization notices that almost 48% of schools in Pakistan are dilapidated having no walls, working bathrooms or even classrooms. Additionally, on any given day, 18-20% of teachers did not attend school and curriculum textbooks were outdated. DIL addressed these issues by providing a modern education by developing a student’s critical-thinking, problem-solving, and reasoning skills. This resulted in changing the way the students conducted their everyday lives and changed the community. In large part, DIL’s schools and education concepts succeeded in breaking down barriers concerning the perception of educated girls in Pakistan. In the rural communities that DIL penetrated, education of females was shunned and deemed un-Islamic. Initially, fathers would burn daughter’s books and girls would attend school only when their fathers had left the home. Now, the opposite is the case. DIL receives demand for more schools from neighboring villages after seeing how education has benefited students currently enrolled.

The communities impacted by DIL have realized how meaningful education is, largely due to parents realizing the benefits and potential of educating their daughters. In one of DIL’s schools, when faced with the realization that opportunities for educated girls was limited, the female students were undaunted and developed a concept of opening up a women’s store. In these communities all shops are owned by men, and a woman cannot go shopping on their own. They have to either go with their husband or have their husband or male relative go for them. A woman’s store changes that community perspective by allowing a woman the freedom to shop on her own. DIL students opened two more stores since the initial store. After that period, enrollment for that specific community increased resulting in DIL having to turn down students because they did not have the capacity for so many students.

These minute changes within the community, especially the development of the education system, play a key factor in reducing and ultimately eliminating the spread of extremism and radicalism in Pakistani society. Lack of education results in a lack of professional skill sets, and ultimately unemployment and poverty. Without sufficient opportunities for education, the young are vulnerable to radical rhetoric and tendencies. DIL has worked to change to that narrative by changing one community’s mindset at a time pertaining to education and what constitutes quality education for youth, male and female.