Taking the first step: Educating Karachi’s street children

By Zubeida Mustafa

The story of Parveen Lateef and her home school was first published on October 22, 2010. This version includes an update on Lateef and her students. It is as relevant today as it was when it was originally featured. – Ed.

• Parveen's daughter Nadia attends school in the morning and serves as an assistant teacher in her mother's home school in the evening. Photo courtesy of Saba Jawad. •

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.

According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey in 2006-07, the average number of children a Pakistani woman bears in her reproductive years is 4.1, with four million babies born every year. Nearly 297 women out of 10,000 who give birth die of pregnancy related causes and 94 out of 1000 children under five die every year. Life was tough for Lateef as is the case with many women in Pakistan.

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.

• Parveen gathered the street children in her neighbourhood and persuaded them to attend her classes. Here they pose for a picture. Photo courtesy of Saba Jawad. •

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.

• Parveen was inspired by other women who had succeeded. She wanted to change her life. Photo courtesy of Saba Jawad. •

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.

• Many adults have joined Parveen's class. They want to change their lives. Photo courtesy of Saba Jawad. •

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.What empowers enterprises like Lateef’s is the dedicated commitment of those who launch it. The home school’s role has proved to be significant in a way Lateef had not visualized when she started on her venture. She is a mobiliser who manages to motivate the kids who would otherwise have never gone to school. She teaches them discipline, good manners, and compassion for one another. She also creates in them the desire to learn.

Nine children from the first batch have now enrolled in a regular school – something they had never dreamt of before. As they moved on, they made room for twelve new students. Those who have gone on to enroll in regular school continue to visit Lateef because they are attached to her. She is like a godmother. She helps them with their homework. Besides, they enjoy the visits to the park and the concerts she arranges for them in the weekly recreation class.

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.

Source: The WIP

7 thoughts on “Taking the first step: Educating Karachi’s street children

  1. With a loose calculation from the statistics of 4.1 children per woman means increase of population over two fold with each generation. In this calculation are missing illegitimate children that are not part of any statistical data.

    In this massive supply of raw material such ‘Lateef’ efforts will not deliver much. I am afraid. Of course Lao-tzu said rightly of the first step, but we are taking one step forward and two steps back!

    1. You are right when you speak of the enormity of the problem. It has to be tackled at the national level by the government. But so long as nothing is done should such individual efforts be scuttled because they will not resolve the problem? Such efforts can be undertaken by individuals and if they are encouraged they can result in creating a critical mass that may create the momentum needed. For all these years thos who could have done something have responded with cynicism. The government has not bothered and that is why we have seen the two steps back you refer to.

  2. This is a very beautiful article. However i do not understand how has lateef managed to run a school all on her own. I mean is she teaching all those children alone or our others helping her out? And to upto which grade does she teach the children?

    1. Parveen Lateef's is a home school. She started it as a home school which means the children and initially some adults too would assemble for two hours or so in the evening. She began teaching them literacy skills. Her youngest daughter who goes to school herself and is very good at reading (Urdu) would help with the younger kids. Her sister who has also been to school for five years (more than Parveen's three years) and is more proficient also helped. The positive thing about their teaching was that each and every child received individual attention.

      As mentioned in the story the children are street kids from her muhalla. They wouldn't have gone to school at all if they had not been drawn into Parveen's home school. In a year she imparts numeracy and literacy skills to them. They become fluent in reading simple Urdu text and and learn the numbers. That is enough to channel them into a regular school. There is a branch of Behbud school close to the colony where Parveen lives. Many of them go there. Others go to a school in the katchi abadi where she lives. This school receives input (teacher's training, guidance, etc) from Behbud.

      Parveen's major contribution is that she mobilises the children and their families. She talks to them about health care, human values etc.

      Parveen works for me in the morning and I meet the cost of her school which is not too much — her salary (to save her from working in other homes as a maid), an allowance for her assistant teacher, and sponsorship for her daughter in Behbud. After the capital cost of the 20 jugnu book series that I purchased I have had to buy a few for her periodically when they get too worn out and need to be replaced. Even the stationery is re-usable — mainly slates, blackboard and chalks. I provide her over-all guidance and teach her little things — how to maintain an attendance record of the students, keep her school and household account, give her books to read to enrich her mind and so on.

      It is not something hefty financially. Any of us can do it. The main challenge is to find a person who has the spirit and motivation to do this and is a little educated herself. She must be someone living in the locality where such services are needed. I detected these traits in Parveen when she came to me for a house maid's job.

      She is excellent. Please look out for others like her and get them to start a home school. The idea of writing this article was to give others the same ideas. Thank you for your interest.

  3. Citizens Education Development Foundation (CEDF) has been doing the above for exactly 25 years through a chain of 21 home schools and a mobile school.. Please visit http://www.cedfpakistan.com
    Oct 1 we are celebrating our silver anniversary with a seminar on "Roshan khyal Taleem, behtar mustaqbil" with educationists, CEDF teacher and a parent. We are offering our graduates opportunities for vocations. Venue: Indus Valley School, Clifton.
    Any interested person is welcome to attend

    1. Thank you Nasim for your comment. I hope the CEDF's silver jubilee celebrations go off well and inspire others to start such schools. When the government has failed to do anything for educating our children we must try and do something ourselves. You are doing wonderful work and may the CEDF prosper even more.

  4. mam zubaida its shehneela here recently involve in a child friendly school or focus on street child's project————-when i started to read this page i was so glad because now a day specially in rural areas people want to spread & get the knowledge from any source they only need few support from any organization,like when i started my field work in some area i find such type of things.
    Its a good effort of lateef to promote education from grass root level..

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