by Zubeida Mustafa
Floods in 2010. Earthquake in 2005. Pakistan has been severely battered by the elements. Thousands have died and millions have become internally displaced. But even without Nature’s unkind revenge, life in Pakistan is not easy for the teeming masses who toil hard to feed themselves and their families. Poverty is their biggest adversary, and according to one estimate over 40 percent of the country’s 180 million live below the poverty line.
Yet in this gloom there are beacons of hope - many of them women - showing the way to people who are on the verge of despair. Parveen Lateef, age 40, is one of them. Her story reads like fiction. But fortunately, it is a true account of a woman’s struggle to change her life and that of her children.
The eldest of nine siblings, Lateef was married at the age of 12. Her father arranged her marriage to a man older than him. Lateef had attended primary school in her village for only three years. Given the short duration of her schooling she should have lapsed into illiteracy by all standards set by educational specialists. But that did not happen even though Lateef’s preoccupation with child-bearing and child-rearing did not allow for any kind of literary activities.
Lateef was destined to move from being a child bride to a teenage mother. Five births followed in quick succession. Resources were limited as Lateef’s husband, a laborer in the construction industry, was frequently out of work. With so many mouths to feed, Lateef took part-time jobs as a domestic worker in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi.
Part-time domestic labor is how many women with no education, training, or skills generate income for themselves in Pakistan. Trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, ignorance, multiple pregnancies, ill health, malnutrition, and oppression, a vast majority of women lead a Hobbesian life that is nasty, brutish, and short.Yet Lateef was blessed with an intuitive sense of self-analysis. One day, as she pondered her future and what lay in store for her children, she decided to take control of her life. She had already enrolled her three younger children in a neighborhood school, in spite of strong opposition from her husband, who was uneducated. Lateef also joined the adult literacy classes run by The Garage School in the afternoon.
Her baji - the Urdu term for elder sister that Lateef called her employer - gave her books to read, opening up a new world of discovery. She read a book on Benazir Bhutto and was inspired by the Peoples Party leader’s courage and political will. “If Bhutto could become the prime minister in spite of all the resistance from religious parties, I can also change my life by resisting the social barriers that obstruct progress,” Lateef shared with me.
Coming home from work one afternoon, Lateef encountered a bunch of street children playing cricket when they should have been in school. “Why are you not in school?” Lateef asked them, although she knew the answer. In a country where 6.8 million children ages 5-9 are out of school, it is not uncommon to see kids playing on the streets. There are other youngsters who go to work. “Our parents cannot afford to pay our school fee,” was their retort. Although government schools do not charge a fee, they hardly teach anything and are not in sufficient numbers. There are only 150,000 schools for a country spread over 796,095 square kilometres. In addition, 7,000 of those schools are dysfunctional and do not operate.Lateef had an idea. She could keep the lamp burning and help light many other lamps. If she could at least help street children learn the alphabet their lives could be transformed. She understood them and the constraints their families faced because she was one of them.
Within a week, the school was inaugurated in Lateef’s one-room home. Children of all ages and sizes flocked in. Their parents also came and the class swelled to 35. The youngest was an infant of six months who accompanied its mother who enrolled as a student. Since no fees were charged, books were free, and the venue was accessible it was easy to attract attendance.
Lateef’s baji purchased literacy materials, including books, workbooks, and chalk for the students and The Garage School donated a blackboard. Registers were obtained and records maintained. Lateef learned the benefits of record keeping, and if a student was absent for a few days she would visit his home to see what was wrong.
Saturday is fun day. The children hold skits, recitation and elocution contests, and song and dance concerts. These occasions are used to impart health education, give lessons in tolerance, and teach children the evils of violence.The school has helped Lateef in ways that educational specialists had not envisaged. It has reinforced her own learning and provided motivation for self-improvement. Today Lateef is a role model for others. She has earned respect in her community as a leader. She is known as “Teacher” and the title delights her to no end. Men respect her – even her own husband has stopped being callous. Women who had argued that they could not change their destiny now look up to her and seek her advice.
Lateef’s younger sister who had followed her to the literacy classes in The Garage School has become a co-teacher at the home school. Lateef’s daughter Nadia, age 11, who dreams of becoming a doctor one day, helps her mother teach the younger children. She enjoys the experience while her own performance in school has improved remarkably.
It would be wrong to say there are no problems. The dropout rate is high, in spite of Lateef’s persistence. The floods and the economic crisis that have engulfed Pakistan have affected enrollment. Some families have sent the children to work while others have returned to their villages. But Lateef has not given up. She is rooted in the neighborhood where she is working to bring about a change from within - not change imposed from the outside or above.
As the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The first step has been taken.
About the Author:
Zubeida Mustafa is a senior journalist and a former assistant editor at Dawn, Pakistan’s most widely circulated English language newspaper. She writes a weekly column for the paper focusing on social issues including education, health, and women.