My story of ‘Agaahi’

As students, when we imagine about broadening the horizons of Pakistani minds (in hope of a better future), what we typically picture is interning to educate underprivileged children in low cost private schools. For several years now, we have been overlooking the adults around us who did not have enough resources to develop a basic educational foundation in their early years and are now struggling in their daily lives due to lack of several essential skills.

Even today, at least 758 million adults cannot read and write globally. This means that more than 10% of the world’s population consists of low literate and low skilled adults.According to 2013’s Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey (conducted by Pakistan Bureau of Statistics), the adult literacy rate in the country is only 57%. In 2016, the Net Enrolment Rate (NER) for primary schools was recorded as 72 percent but at the same time, the dropout rate of 33 percent kept affecting the overall literacy rate drastically.

Last summer, while I was interning at a bank, I had to fill in several account opening forms for peons and janitors coming in from a school nearby. For procedures of usual customers, we only required their signatures but for the people who could not read or write well, we also required photographs and multiple thumb prints. This delayed the whole process and the support staff of that school had to wait for their pay a little longer.

As school reopened, I started noticing the support staff more often. There was a huge communication gap between the students and the staff as well as between the administration and the staff (mainly because our support staff isn’t well literate and had trouble understanding English). When given a task using English language, they always hesitated to ask for clarification and were simply embarrassed. There were times when students continuously chattered in English and someone from the junior staff just stood at a corner, trying to understand the conversation or probably wishing that he/she could comprehend it.

I realized that they not only needed the knowledge of alphabets and numerics but also needed grooming, personal enhancement and efficient communication skills.

Once, I saw a peon asking a student for help in typing a text. Another time, I overheard a janitor talking about his part time cleaning job at Siddique Trade Center. He was speaking about how he wishes he had learnt driving or any other technical skill so that he had a comparatively more prestigious job. One idea led to another and I realized that something should be done.

I tried talking to a few members of the junior staff to understand why they never attended a school. They explained that their parents had no concept of education. Their parents didn’t go to a school and they didn’t send their children to schools. Similarly, these people from our school’s staff are also not sending their children to schools. I got a similar response when I tried asking the same question from my maids, my driver and a few other underprivileged people. Why? This is because they don’t realize how crucial education can be. This needs to change and at least one generation will have to step forward to light the candle of change.

I began to research about the current situation of Pakistan when it comes to adult literacy. “Pakistan lags behind all South Asian countries. We are living in knowledge revolution era and our development journey must start with education and end with education,” said ex Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Reforms Ahsan Iqbal.

In 1990s Pakistan’s representatives attended an International Education Conference in Thailand where several education ministers and senior representatives of almost all the UN agencies including the World Bank and UNESCO were present. Here, Pakistan committed itself to the goals set for the next 10 years but unlike India and China, it failed. This was primarily because of a lack of political will and inefficiencies of our educational departments. Now, according to the data compiled by the United Nations, there are only 13 countries in the world with a lower adult literacy rate than Pakistan.

Currently, there are very few adult literacy programs in Pakistan and even fewer programs for support staff at institutes. One of the adult literacy programs has been implemented by NCHD. NCHD has set up a few Adult Literacy Centers in local communities providing basic literacy skills to the individuals in the age group of 11-45. Literate Pakistan conducts literacy sessions in industries like National Food and English Biscuits. TCF and Care Foundation are also working on adult literacy by training the teachers employed in their low cost private schools. PACADE is another name working for the same cause.

As far as imparting technical skills in the underprivileged is concerned, there are a few low cost government run projects. Names include TEVTA and PVTC. Individuals can choose from a wide range of vocational trainings such as domestic tailoring, beautician course, electrician course, mobile repairing, driving etc. BISP program also tried to educate women in rural areas through ATM machine prototypes to help women understand how the procedure at a bank works. Another organization DEA launched a short female literacy program last year where women were given training on how to make cheap sanitary pads at home. However, in my knowledge, no such program has ever been introduced specifically for any institute’s support staff.

The education system of Pakistan is currently comprised of 260,903 institutions and is facilitating 41,018,384 students. 31% educational institutes are run by private sector while 69% are public institutes. Not all but most of these institutes have at least one janitor/peon/guard employed that is uneducated. Employed in an educational institute and yet deprived of education. Oh, the irony.

As I started discussing the situation, I met a few like-minded fellows who shared similar experiences, Talha and Wahaj. This is how we came up with an idea to impart primary level education and technical skills amongst the support staff of our college. We designed the syllabus for English, Math, Urdu, Computer and Personal Enhancement and recently began teaching the staff. When we asked around, a lot of members of the support staff wanted to enroll in a basic electronics course so that they can make a part time living out of it. We will soon start collecting donations so that we can hire external trainers for vocational training.

For one of the classes, I had planned a discussion on gender equality. The most heartfelt answers were given by Saira, my college’s lady searcher. Every time I see her in the school, she has this big smile on her face and she often tells me how I look stressed out and that I should smile more often. I always had an image of her in my mind as a very cheerful person. This changed after our discussion. We had talked a few times but this was a heartfelt conversation after which I felt terrible about the fact that Saira could comprehend my emotions through my facial expressions but I couldn’t do the same for her.

Saira is a single mother, striving to educate her children. She had to leave her education between 10th grade because her parents forced her to get married. This conversation was followed by lots of tears (shed by her and me both) and a poignant personal story about how her in-laws are constantly pressurizing her to get her daughter hitched. Saira regrets not completing her education and now wishes to educate her daughter with a hope that if she is literate enough, she wouldn’t have to see the cruel face of this world that Saira has seen. Saira was one of the most exuberant support staff members when we announced that we’re starting a literacy program on campus.

Busy with our own timetables, most of us never take out time to think about the lives of people around us. Each one of us mildly interacts with our institute’s support staff members but how many of us have actually made an effort to hear them out once? How many of us have tried to analyze their critical situation and help them out?

If anyone wants to start a similar program in their school and need help with curriculum development or something, feel free to contact me!

See details of our work and support our cause: https://www.facebook.com/projectagaahi

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