Learning a lesson in Khairpur
No amount of theory can prepare one for the real deal - closed schools, girls pulled out of school, or trying to convince men that education will not impact values.
Empty classrooms, vacant desks, books unopened and lessons not learnt – Khairpur’s schools are screaming for attention. Interning with some local NGOs gave me the opportunity to visit and compile a report about girls’ schools in Khairpur Mir.
I was struck, in a harrowing way, by what I saw.
When most people think about the state of education, especially female education in rural areas, a gloomy picture comes to mind. Let’s just say that I wasn’t expecting everything to be hunky dory either. I had gleaned enough details about ghost schools, absenteeism, and general dissatisfaction with government schools. But no amount of theory can actually prepare one for the real deal – seeing closed government schools, meeting young girls pulled out of school, or trying to convince gentlemen with a religious bend that sending girls to school doesn’t compromise religious or traditional values.
Whose territory is this school on?
My conversations with community members and students helped to shed light on several problems. In all interactions with members of rural communities, the first issue raised was territorial. An intrusion of people from other villages, especially people from other clans, threatens social fabric. I was taken aback by how important a tiny thing like that can be. Allah Warrayo, the wada (elder) of 70 houses of mithari, specified that none of the teachers, or doctors for the clinic should be from another clan. But here’s the problem: no girl in his clan had schooling beyond fifth grade. Nevertheless, Warrayo remained adamant on this point as he painstakingly explained the way an inter-clan marriage between a girl from his Metalo clan, and boy from the Kalhora family, ignited a controversy over land distribution which spawned into an inter-family feud claiming 13 lives.
Why should she go to school?
The second problem seemed to be the lack of tangible incentives and poor marketing. Warrayo thought that paying for his sons’ education in the city was a worthless expense. Both were engineers – but jobless - and so they were tending to his family’s farms. Although he neither expected, nor wanted any financial benefits from educating his daughter (he baulked at the idea of her working), he felt that having some incentives such as teaching girls to stitch, cook, or learn about basic healthcare would improve attendance rates.
What if she writes love letters?
Syed Mohammad, a father of two girls studying at Sobhodero’s Model School voiced similar concerns. He said that while the more urbane people in Sobhodero welcomed the idea of women’s education, a common, and absurd, argument put forward by detractors was that learning to write would enable girls to write notes to boys, and in typical Bollywood fashion, elope. To me, this strange rendition seemed to belie the latent fears about girls thinking for themselves, marrying according to their choice, demanding their share in property and so, weakening the socio-economic power of their parents and exposing them to the possibility of receiving a taano (insult).
What the girls want
Interaction with students, my age or younger, left me stunned. Some girls surprised me with their resilience, fortitude and spirit, and others with their docility and lack of drive. Aspiring astronauts like thirteen year old Ameerzadi were juxtaposed with submissive Zareen highlighting a glass that was both, half-full and half-empty - a few girls were willing to fight social pressures and go to school, but others found school boring and irrelevant.
More disturbingly, I was introduced to ubiquitous cheating trends. I met high achieving chemistry students, from Khairpur’s best, and most expensive, private schools who had never seen the periodic table, and couldn’t explain the difference between atoms and molecules to me - underscoring the way cheating kills the purpose of investing into schooling these kids.
Through the days I spent in the field, one thing was clear. Until underlying socio-economic problems, local politics, obscurantist propaganda and cheating trends continue, efforts to recuperate Sindh’s lost generation will be futile.