‘Going to School Won’t Feed my Girls:’ Barriers to Girls’ Education In Pakistan


May 15, 2022




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(ISLAMABAD,Pakistan)— Pehli Kiran, an open-air tent school, offers a beacon of hope to the city’s poorest. In a country where education is underfunded and almost 22 million children—mostly girls—remain out of school, principal Sakina Jamshed is providing hope for the children in Islamabad’s slums where she was once a student herself. 

Maira Akku, an impoverished area on the outskirts of the F8 Sector in Islamabad [Credit:Neelum Nawab]

Jamshed moved to the slums of Islamabad with a conservative family background. The tent school team continuously motivated her family and finally,  Jamshed and her sister Saleema were admitted to school. 

“My family who initially didn’t want to send me and my sisters to school now help us by going around the community to motivate other families to send their girls to school by giving my example,” Jamshed said with a smile. 

Today in Jamshed’s PK school, girls make up more than 55% of the students.Previously, there were fewer than 9% girls in a class of 65 students. 

“I was rescued from the darkness of illiteracy by an angel in the shape of  Mam Ayesha when I was eight and begging at a street corner,” said Shazia Khan, a 20-year-old teacher. 

1st though 5th grade students attend class at the PK tent school in Islamabad [Credit: Neelum Nawab]

Khan now assists her teacher Ayesha, with classes while she studies for a bachelor’s degree at a local university.

In 1960, Islamabad’s founders imagined a capital city for the country’s political and bureaucratic elite. Six decades later, it is criticized  for lacking public housing  for the poor, who work in menial jobs and as domestic servants for the wealthy.

As a result numerous slum areas cropped up throughout the city when large numbers of people moved to the capital city from rural areas in search of jobs.Because their homes in the slums are not legally recognized, many find it hard to enroll their children in registered schools.

According to a UNICEF report, “Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children with an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 not attending school, representing 44 percent of the total population in this age group” 

Sabira Qureshi, Women rights activists. Founder of Pehli Kiran Tent Schools [Credit: @sabiranq]

The report also notes significant “disparities based on gender, socio-economic status, and geography.” A report on non-formal education by the Ministry of Human Rights (2018), indicates that 70% of the sample population in slums of Islamabad is out of school constituting 2,174 children. Poverty, lack of parental care and education facilities and absence of Child Registration Certificate (CRC) also known as B-form have been identified as the major reasons for out-of-school children in sampled slums of Islamabad.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, Pakistan: Girls Deprived of Education,  32% of primary school-age girls are out of school in Pakistan, compared to 21% of boys. By grade six, 59% of girls are out of school, versus 49% of boys. Only 13% of girls are still in school by ninth grade.”

From 10 children under a tree to 3,600 under tents

Suleman and his siblings, searching the rubble in search of metal. [Credit: Neelum Nawab]

Suleman and his siblings, searching the rubble in search of metal. [Credit: Neelum Nawab]

Sabira Qureshi started the Pehli Kiran School as an NGO in 1995,  teaching 10 children under a tree. Today it is a series of 10, portable, tent schools teaching 3,600 children. The name of the school translates to: “First Ray of Sunlight School.”

“The Pehli Kiran School model is based on bringing school to children, not the children to school as these communities don’t have easy access to school,” said Qureshi.

Not far from one of the tent schools in Islamabad, three children were sifting through a pile of rubble.

“I’m searching for metal,  I will sell it for a hundred rupees if I find a big piece,” said Suleman. He wasn’t sure of his age, 11, or maybe 12. Suleman’s father was taken by the police (he didn’t know exactly why).  Now, he has two sisters, two brothers and a mother to feed. He and his sisters look for anything of value in the heaps of rubble of the neighborhood he can sell for about 100 Pakistani Rupees, or 53 cents, to help feed his family.

Pehli Kiran Tent School in Maira Akku, Slums of Islamabad [Credit:Neelum Nawab]

Pehli Kiran Tent School in Maira Akku, an impoverished area of Islamabad [Credit: Neelum Nawab]

Suleman learned about a nearby free, tent school that he could attend with his sisters in the morning and work in the evening. Maybe they will go someday. 

As kids were passing through the broken, uneven pathways through houses built with tents and mud, a girl peeked out of her house door and watched the kids going to tent school across the street.

Aliza, who believes her age to be 9,  said it’s been one year since she went to school. She passed the second grade and was in third grade when she left.

“I like to hear the school bell ring and watch other kids going to school. I wish one day to go to school instead of watching other kids go, everyday from here across the street,”  she said  wistfully.

Sabeen, mother of three girls says,”Going to school won’t feed my girls.” [Credit: Neelum Nawab]

Sabeen, one of the women on the street of Islamabad slums has eight kids with one son and seven daughters. “My three daughters are living with me and all other kids are married and gone.

My husband died and I’ve sugar and diabetes,” she said.  As to why her three daughters are not in school she said, “Going to school won’t feed my girls. I’ve to send them to clean houses to make ends meet as I can’t work due to a broken arm. ”

Bina is the mother of sons in first, second and fifth grade at the school. She works as a cleaning lady while her husband works at a nursery.

“The principal of this school came to my house and convinced my husband and myself to send our children to their school as we can not afford to send our children to school and pay tuition fee to go to government school which is far from where we live,” he said.

Bina, a cleaning lady, sends her three sons to the tent school. [Credit: Neelum Nawab]

Bina is the mother of sons in first, second and fifth grade at the school. She works as a cleaning lady while her husband works at a nursery.

“The principal of this school came to my house and convinced my husband and myself to send our children to their school as we can not afford to send our children to school and pay tuition fee to go to government school which is far from where we live,” he said.

“It’s difficult for these children to give time to their studies since their background is not strong. On top of that, they’ve to go to work after attending school or those who come in the evening shift are coming from work so we don’t give them any homework, ” said Mohammed Asghar, a teacher at Pehli Kiran school.

Mohd Asgher teaches his Students in the class at Tent school while continuing his Masters in the evening at a University. [Credit: Neelum Nawab]

Tehmina who is in fourth grade said, “I want to become a teacher when I grow up.” She is worried she may be unable to finish school  as her older sister was not allowed  to continue after fifth grade due to cultural and social restrictions on older girls.

Most girls not allowed after elementary schooling

During interviews with several girl students they talked again and again about their desire for further education and wish to become “a teacher or a doctor” but worry that they might not be allowed to continue after fifth grade.

Tehmina fears being stopped from going to school after fifth grade. [Credit: Neelum Nawab]

“These communities are irregular settlements. From time to time anti-encroachment drives  (legal action taken by the government to vacate illegally occupied state land from occupants, renders) are done, authorities come and they move these communities.We also made our school structure portable to move with the community and relocate and reassemble our school with the community. This way school stays with the community,” said Qureshi.

“This entire project depends on philanthropic donations and is entirely charity based,”she added.

One student’s journey from tent school to national stage 

Kanwal Gulshan, a resident of Maria Aku slum, Islamabad, and a former student of a tent school PKS5, made history by going to FIFA 2018 in Russia.

Gulshan is breaking many stereotypes about Pakistani girls, particularly poor girls not even allowed to go to school, let alone play sports. When she told her father she wanted to go, he did not know what FIFA was. “My school principal told him what a tremendous achievement it was,” she said.

“When I was 14, the first-ever coach came to our school from Right to Play, and she taught girls to play football. Otherwise I didn’t know about what football was other than watching it on TV occasionally,” said the thin-framed Gulshan about her journey from the slums to FIFA2018 Football.

Sadia is not allowed to continue school after fifth grade. [Credit: Neelum Nawab]

“I didn’t even know that I’ll be interviewed to go to Russia as I never heard of this country’s name nor did I know anything about FIFA,” she added.

“When I used to play as a student, I would tell myself that when I become a coach, I’ll teach my students to play their best,” she said.

Gulshan, who found her footing in the PK tent school, now an eleventh grader coaches for girls at the same school and plans onto do Masters in Sports Psychology to be the best Coach to optimise her athletes performance.

Presence in the slums is a strength

According to Qureshi, “Our presence and strong relationship in the slums community is our strength. Any organization, non-profit, even government, uses us for their vaccination drive, immunization, and other help to bring awareness they need around this community.”

At the end of the day, everyone helps pack up the tent school . [Credit: Neelum Nawab]

The tent school is ready to welcome children who come for all sorts of reasons and those who would like to go when circumstances permit.

It’s not unlike schools all over the world except perhaps this one has walls of fabric. 

The school bell rang bringing the school day to an end, all the children started wrapping up their school bags to go home with some students folding the sheets and tents to pack up the school only to unpack it the next morning when it’s time to learn again. 



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