It is rare for me to leave any government education facility with something of a rosy glow rather than a grumbling fulmination about poor standards, incompetence and wasted money. Yet as I left the Vocational Training Institute Bahawalpur for Women surrounded by chattering women as the shift changed and the afternoon batch streamed in, a rosy glow it was. Most of my own work regarding education development over decades has been at the other end of the spectrum, primary and secondary education, and what I knew about vocational training other than it was vitally necessary could be written on the back of a smallish envelope.
Since 31st January 2015, Mrs Afshan Siddique has been the principal and she runs a very tight ship. She took me around classrooms that were light, airy and packed to the rafters with women, not all of them young, that were learning how to design websites and manage offices, be clinical assistants in the huge medical industry that sustains the local economy, be beauticians and leave with a certificate that allows them to set up a home-based business, as well as traditional crafts of sewing (…Rs 600 to sew a simple shalwar locally, you only need to make a couple of those a day and you have a living) and embroidery. They were being taught by other women who clearly knew their stuff if the whiteboards were anything to go by, and had all the equipment and materials, some of them expensive, that they needed.
This was not vocational education on the cheap, this was a quality product that was well established, appropriately resourced, had institutional maturity and was one of over 300 across Punjab. It is housed in a modern purpose-built complex — there is a male section to the rear that I did not visit — and I was only vaguely aware of them until my niece got herself a place to train there in January. The entire network is run from a directorate in Lahore (that has an informative website) and is clearly a considerable success.
Most of the students come from poorer families; they get a monthly stipend to help with transport and for those that want there is little difficulty once they graduate in finding jobs. Not all will work in public spaces or organisations and many will work from home. No matter, work is work and these women were being empowered with skillsets that can raise their families if not out of poverty then reducing the level of poverty they experience.
This column is being published on International Women’s Day, March 8th, and it is almost traditional for the media to lament the dreadful circumstances of women in Pakistan and they are right to do so, but that is not the whole story as Mrs Siddique was happy to show me. She runs an institution that turns out female change-agents by the thousand. And has done so for years. What ought to be headline news is largely absent from the prints and the airwaves. Whilst the students are probably unaware of being participants in a very quiet revolution, those that set up this network of VT colleges up were almost certainly aware of what it was they were doing. Very large sums of money have been spent across successive governments to sustain the network, there is no profit in it and there seems to be little private-sector or NGO activity in VT.
The profit lies entirely in the positive socio-cultural-economic outcomes and it is difficult to find anything negative to say about what I saw. Perhaps there is a need to diversify in the skills that are being taught, women are no less able to repair kettles and other small electrical appliances or even motorbikes and cars but perhaps that is a skillset too far right now — but they can be taught to service a laptop or fix a cranky PC.
A couple of phone calls and some serious Googling tells me that there is a not-dissimilar range of VT resources right across Khyber-Pakhtunkwa. For more than a decade Pakistan has been developing a national resource that is a powerful engine driving change and nobody is singing about it. Well I am. Tootle-pip!
Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2018.