Jawad Khan, 15, spends most of his day at home in his village in the remote Battagram district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), sometimes glancing at a magazine, or occasionally helping his mother shell peas or cut up potatoes.
His three younger siblings spend their day in school, and Jawad, a top student in his grade till a year ago, assists them with revision and homework. He has himself refused to go to school for over a year as the new private school set up in the area lacks a ramp for his wheelchair.
Jawad lost both legs after he was trapped for over two hours under the rubble of his public school during the devastating quake of 2005 which killed at least 73,000 people in parts of K-P (then known as the North West Frontier Province) and Azad Kashmir.
That school is still to be built, and Jawad says he “feels too embarrassed” to be carried to his classroom. To add to his problems, his wheelchair, donated soon after his legs were amputated when he was nine, has also virtually fallen apart. “My family cannot afford a new one,” he said according to a report by IRIN, the UN information unit.
According to the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), the 2005 earthquake left 23,000 children disabled. Unicef itself is building “child-friendly” schools across the earthquake zone, complete with facilities for the disabled, and last year opened 16 more such schools.
“At the child-friendly schools Unicef is building, we try to mainstream disabled children. Ramps are provided when needed, but issues like access to schools for children in remote areas are huge,” said Jan Madad, an education specialist at Unicef. But the 165 schools Unicef has agreed to build cannot cater to the needs of all the earthquake-affected children.
According to the Earthquake Relief and Rehabilitation Authority, set up by the government immediately after the earthquake, 5,751 educational institutions damaged or destroyed by the earthquake needed to be reconstructed. Some 73 percent had been completed by the beginning of September 2011. Work continues on others, but this still means many children lack access to school. Some still manage, while for the disabled it is sometimes impossible to go back to inaccessible classrooms.
Apart from the school design, the terrain where the earthquake struck is mostly mountainous. Ali Khan, now 12, lives in the Allai administrative unit of Battagram District. After his legs damaged during the quake, he can only hobble about on crutches. But the 4-kilometre walk down a steep mountain path to the school is too arduous for him.
Ali, who once dreamt of becoming an engineer, said: “This is fate. I have to live with it. I just help my father the best I can around our farm. This is all that is left for me to learn.”
Scattered across the earthquake zone, other children are in a similar situation. The 5-km distance along a rickety path in her village near Bagh in Kashmir cannot be negotiated in the wheelchair used by Asma Sharif, 13 and she receives only occasional lessons at home from her uncle. “He is too busy to help anymore.”
Zahooruddin, a doctor at the Islamabad-based Hashoo Foundation, an NGO, which has worked with earthquake victims since 2005, said: “The problems are exacerbated because wheelchairs wear out quickly in that terrain and the victims have no funds to replace them.” In some cases he said tutors had been arranged for children unable to reach school.
The problems for many children are acute. “My nine-year-old pupil, Gul Muhammad’s father carries on his back. His friends help him to the toilet and the chairs are uncomfortable as he has a back problem. I feel sorry to see him and wish our school had better facilities,” said Alimuddin Ali, a schoolteacher in Battagram.
He said he knew of disabled children in other villages with no access to school, either because of distance or the way schools were designed.
“I have read of radio education for children in remote communities. Perhaps we can use FM radio to offer them lessons,” he suggested.
“The thing is these children need to go to school. My son is growing, I am getting older and I worry about how long I can carry him to school,” said Gul’s father, Hakimuddin.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2012.
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