It had been a long time since my last visit to Balochistan, where I grew up. On the way, I was enjoying the rough, dry terrain, with dramatic mountains against a vivid blue sky, bright sun and a surprisingly cool breeze.
Balochistan’s rugged and beautiful landscape is unlike any other province in Pakistan. Unfortunately, it’s plagued by poverty, insecurity, and poor utilization of its natural resources.
The lack of infrastructure and development only a few miles outside of the city of Quetta is jarring. I felt like I had gone back in time.
In contrast, it was interesting to note telecom logos painted on the brick walls of the houses and edifices we drove by, indicating that change and access is coming.
Establishing new schools in remote areas
As we drove north out toward the district of Pishin, it could be miles of the same oddly shaped brown mountains, with a field of wheat or grapes or a man herding his sheep and goats, signifying that a new community was taking hold. Brick houses gave way to the typical mud houses.
It is, therefore, even more awe-inspiring that despite all these obstacles, the Balochistan Education Project (BEP) has managed to establish over 550 new government primary schools, upgrade over 100 government primary schools to middle schools and middle schools to high schools within three years.
The BEP is funded by a US$34 million grant from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) implemented with the support of the World Bank. The Government of Balochistan’s Education Department has set up project management unit to implement these activities.
Some of the schools are built in the most remote areas of Balochistan. In some cases they are the only schools for miles. BEP Education Officers traveled throughout the province to survey the areas and decide on the locations to establish the new schools.
They showed us on Google Earth how a community in Ghari Sherani was practically cordoned off from the rest of the region by a massive mountain range, but their team travelled there and set up a school.
Their stories of the primitive nature of some of these remote areas can be hard to believe: “A girl came up to me and touched the glasses on my face, asking me what they were,” Safia Noor, Education Officer BEP, told us during a casual conversation.
Listening to communities’ needs to set up new schools
All new and upgraded schools are geotagged and regularly monitored through BEP’s robust monitoring and evaluation process. BEP’s main objective through this project is to make education more accessible, especially for girls.
The Government of Balochistan established criteria for school site selection that ensures there is no other school within a 1.5 km radius. The Government widely advertised the criteria through newspapers, social media and district education offices, inviting applications from the communities that have no schools.
A community that wants a school first needs to show it has at least 20 to 25 children of school age who are out of school. The community needs to pool together its resources and provide land for the school. The land is officially transferred to the Education Department, and a temporary building must be available until the new school construction is complete: a simple two-room structure (for primary schools).
Better trained teachers and more girls’ enrollments
BEP also looks for qualified female teachers available in the same locality to encourage families to send their daughters to school. The entire teacher recruitment process has seen a major overhaul, as teachers are now recruited based upon their own merit and qualification and inducted through a competitive National Testing Service exam followed by comprehensive teacher training.
A national model for early childhood education has been adopted across the four provinces of Pakistan, including in Balochistan. We saw young children learning through songs, art and play. It was a pleasant surprise to see the change in education system and the way students were being supported and helped by their teachers.
Communities support education
We talked with parents and community members and heard that people, especially younger parents, want their children to be educated. “An entire generation of Baloch have been left unlettered,” Shakiullah, a farmer and father who has 25 children from his family (including the kids of 8 of his brothers) enrolled in one of the new schools. “Even with our girls, we want to educate them. We are not educated so we know what we have missed out on.”
As a result of BEP’s efforts, more than 20,000 children have been enrolled in the new and upgraded schools so far, a great achievement that makes me very proud as a native of Balochistan.
I am also proud to see my province going in the right direction. The memories I brought back from this trip were overwhelming and will remain with me for a long time. I can’t forget those young eyes full of hope and energy. These children are the future of Balochistan.
I will conclude this with a quote from one of the students we met:
“I want to study till my last breath and see the name of Pishin rise high all over the world,” said Saqiba, a Grade 8 student who lost her father at an early age.