NEW DELHI, India — Over a crackling phone line between Delhi and Pakistan’s northern Sindh province, Parveen Memon laughs as she talks in Urdu about how she persuaded her parents to not only let her continue school after grade five, but to also choose her school.
Memon can now afford the levity. But it was a struggle for the young girl from Sobhodero, a small town in the province’s Khairpur district.
“I cried so much for three to four months that when my parents saw my behavior and saw how depressed I was, they realized, 'This girl is not going to listen to us,’ and finally allowed me to go to the Sojro Model School,” she recalls. There was no school providing girls secondary education in her village.
Today Memon, 18, works as an education promoter in a local NGO that works with Developments in Literacy (DIL), an NGO created in 1997 by five expatriate Pakistani women living in the U.S. to improve the dismal state of education in Pakistan’s underdeveloped areas.
“This group is part of a generation that grew up in Pakistan, one step before (president) Zia’s time” said Anjana Raza, Islamabad-based executive director of operations at DIL. “Their ties are strong and they know the context [they are working in].”
DIL provides quality education to disadvantaged children, especially girls, by starting new schools with a strong focus on gender equality and community participation.
It currently has 150 schools, 50 of which are managed only by DIL and 100 managed with local partner NGOs. DIL and DIL-partner schools are from kindergarten to grade eight. The schools, which currently enroll some 3,600 students, follow government regulations.
DIL starts working in an area only if the community there wants better education and invites it in. “Either there is no girls’ school or no school, or the schools are very far and the girls aren’t allowed to go so far. So we go where there is need, and there has to be a group there that wants this,” she said, adding that in most of the areas in which they work there are no schools at all.
Even when invited by the community, it is far from easy to convince the local people to send their daughters to any school at all. “Sometime parents take girls out of school in the third or fourth grade,” she said. Many are married off as young as 10 and 11 years of age, even though that practice is illegal in Pakistan. “Puberty [for girls here] reaches early,” said Raza.
DIL and its local partner’s volunteers have persuaded some parents to not marry off their daughters so early, especially in interior Sindh, though it doesn't always work as planned.
“Last year the parents of a sixth grade girl wanted to get her married and the teachers intervened but it didn’t help. She still got married. Then we went to the husband’s family and tried to persuade them to let the girl continue her education. The husband then got the girl [the child bride] books and sent her to school,” Raza said.
The challenge in Pakistan is not just persuasion but also understanding the myriad cultural contexts. “We literally have to be responsive to the needs and requirements and the developmental process of the area at each school and community level we are serving,” said Raza.
The schools follow the government curriculum but enhance it. They also use alternative materials instead of government-prescribed books. They use the phonics method to teach English and Urdu because it makes the child focus on the alphabet and the sound rather than the rote method of government schools. “We use an incremental approach,” Raza said.
After reaching grade eight, DIL and its partners give students scholarships to go to the nearest government or private school to finish grades nine and 10. “A travel allowance is most critical because otherwise the girl students would have to take public transport which their parents may be reluctant to have them use,” said Raza, adding that the students pool in their funds from DIL to collectively rent a van or share a ride. DIL also helps students buy books and pay the registration fee for their examinations.
As a result of these successes, DIL is getting new school requests from people in neighboring villagers who’ve seen the quality, Reza said. “The demand is much higher than we can meet." It is adding new grades in some schools.
The impact so far? Some 1,500 girls have graduated from the eighth grade, while 35 percent have finished grade 10, or matriculation, as it is called in Pakistan. In an environment where child marriage was the norm, the completion of grade 10 is a huge achievement.
Another positive trend is students’ involvement in sport, debate and other extra curricular activities like art. Thanks to the confidence DIL and its partners instill in these girl students, they have started competing in inter-school competitions with schools from urban areas. “Girl students from villages who were completely intimidated and subdued even by visitors to a village are confidently not just competing in these competitions but winning. This has had a huge impact on the [village] communities,” Raza said.
Parveen Memon is a model of what DIL has achieved in Pakistan. As an education promoter, Memon looks after 10 of her area’s schools and her job has given her family an exalted position in her village. She is one of seven sisters and, seeing how well she has done, her parents have admitted one of her sisters into school. Memon has convinced a few other parents, too.
“They realize after seeing me that sending girls to school is more important than sending boys. I tell them that if girls are not educated it will be difficult to get them married and also even if they get married they won’t be respected,” Memon said, giggling at her crafty tactics.