Educating Hajra

Feature | 7 June 2010

An ADB-supported middle school project is making the dream of an education a reality for Pakistan's rural girls.

Sukkur, Pakistan - Hajra stands up. The 13-year-old eighth grader confidently answers a math question that none of the boys in her class can. Her teacher, Manzoor Ali Abbasi, says proudly, "She is our top student."

Abbasi, 42, teaches at Sukkur Middle School, which has benefited from an ADB-supported program to help Pakistan's middle schools - a program that has specifically targeted female students. Says Abbasi, "None of the girls in this class would have gotten past grade five without the Middle School Project."

The Middle School Project

Literacy rates in Pakistan still fall behind other countries in the region, particularly among women. Although the percentage of literate females rose to 65% in 2006, up from 51% in 1991, Pakistan's current progress on gender parity in primary education is rated by ADB as slow and off-track.

In 1992, the government requested ADB loan assistance of $78 million to expand and improve middle school education in Balochistan, North-West Frontier Province, and Sindh. The program especially encouraged the participation of girls like Hajra - poor girls from rural areas - by offering stipends for female students in grades six through eight and by increasing qualified teachers in both rural and urban slum areas.

The project was conceived to accommodate a surge in the number of students expected to complete primary school. A national program at the federal level initiated curriculum reform, prototype textbook development, and student achievement testing. The physical improvements of schools in the project gave each an average of three classrooms, a science room, and basic amenities comprising a head teacher's room, veranda, toilet, hand pump for water, and a boundary wall.

Sukkur Middle School Principal Soomar Khan Memom points out that before the Middle School Project, his school was only for primary students up to grade five. "With renovated classrooms, new desks, books, toilets, and more staff, we were able to enroll 70 new students, mostly girls," he says.

Teacher Training

Along with over 15,000 other teachers in the project, Manzoor attended a 4-week training course, acquiring new skills that made him a better teacher. "Before, I used only the blackboard, but now the students work in pairs and teaching is interactive so they learn much more," he says, noting that provision of textbooks, library books, and guides for teachers made a big difference, with 26,700 teacher's handbooks provided to teaching staff in the three provinces.

Four weeks of in-service training was given to some 5,500 untrained teachers to improve subject competency, and 15,500 middle school teachers received 10 days training in the revised curriculum, with 4,000 middle school head teachers trained in a 6-week course on school management and supervision.

Helping Girls Become Students - and Teachers

To relieve poor rural families of the financial burden that often prevents them from sending their daughters to school, a rural girls' stipend program helped a number of girls complete middle schooling, even in remote areas.

To qualify for the program, candidates needed to be enrolled in an eligible rural school and to have attended grade five with acceptable attendance and performance. To reach poor families, the project required the annual income of the family unit to be less than 10,000 Pakistan rupees (PRs) (about $119). The parents or guardians had to promise to keep their daughter or ward in school until grade eight by signing an agreement with the district education officer. Only one beneficiary per family was eligible, with preference for the eldest. Priority was given to orphans and handicapped girls. The stipend provided an annual cash and book allowance of PRs1,400 (about $17) to each beneficiary, reaching a total of 50,430 students in the three provinces.

A rural teacher enhancement stipend program not only assisted female students who wanted to become teachers but also helped increase the number of female teachers in rural areas. A candidate had to be currently enrolled in a rural school and attending grade 10, with acceptable attendance and performance records. Her parents or guardians were required to make a commitment: that she would complete the teachers' training program at a government college and that they would permit her to accept an assignment in a rural middle school for 3 years after she finished her course. The stipend provided a monthly amount of PRs250 (about $3) plus an annual book allowance of the same amount. Overall, 1,400 aspiring teachers received this stipend.

Changing Communities

At Sukkur Middle School, one can observe another important aspect of the program: in classrooms like Hajra's, boys and girls study side by side. "It has changed how the boys relate to girls in the classroom," says Manzoor.

Mixed classes foster gender equity by developing a more inclusive attitude toward girls among young males. But the classes do more than that. Project schools like Sukkur, which have opened their doors to rural girls, have created unprecedented opportunities for these girls in their communities by changing attitudes toward female schooling.

By the time it was completed, the project had benefited 70,452 students and upgraded 609 primary schools, including 331 girls' schools, giving thousands of bright young girls like Hajra the opportunity for a better education and the opportunities provided by one.