Early morning light filters through the retreating fog. As their breaths puff in the crisp air, young girls stream forward, giggling quietly as they help each other readjust their headscarves. Besham isn't a place one would expect to find girls walking to school. Their mothers, aunts and grandmothers, most of whom never attended classes beyond religious education, ensure they make the walk each morning.
Besham's dotting of tiny villages lies just one mountain range away from the Swat Valley. In Shangla district, where Besham is the largest town, school enrollment for girls hovers at 31%. Only 16% of school-age girls are enrolled in nearby Kohistan district. For generations, educational priorities have centered on religious training. Women raised their daughters and granddaughters to focus on the home. Some fortunate girls learned to read and recite from the Quran. But most never had the chance to attend class at all.
Now, those same girls are mothers—and mothers who are passionate about education. They gather to talk with female teachers about their daughters' progress in class. Their husbands and brothers meet to discuss how to support the school and address problems.
The drastic shift in priorities and perspectives rests on a single pivot point: In communities that value faith above all else, what does the Quran say about educating girls? Catholic Relief Services decided to ask that question of local religious leaders. Their answers created a foundation for community-supported education where other initiatives had failed.
Education for All, Based on Faith
A team of senior CRS staff met with local religious and community leaders to discuss the importance of educating boys and girls. Nasrullah Khan, head of CRS' office in Besham, reflects back on the process of studying the Quran through the lens of investigating education, especially for girls.
"We brought the religious leaders together and asked them to go through the Holy Quran and see what it said about education, either for or against, and how it could be applied to both boys and girls," says Khan. "We did not tell them what they might want to look for or guide them to a certain result. The foundation for educating boys and girls is in the Quran, plainly, and it took asking the right questions and encouraging dialogue for the religious leaders to come together and agree: Education is good."
Agreeing that education is good, though, was still far from actually getting girls into the classroom. Northern Pakistan is one of the most firmly traditional places in the country and supporting education for girls was only the first step. Many barriers stood in the way. Girls are not permitted to walk far from home, so villages needed to find or construct spaces where they could meet. Qualified female teachers continue to be in short supply given the limitations of girls' education in the past. And mothers sacrifice household help during the hours that girls attend class, a sharp loss in a region where every family member is expected to pitch in to prepare for the long, harsh winters.
CRS staff helped communities identify places where girls could gather. They assisted with construction when existing schools needed separate areas for girls to meet. Outreach workers from CRS provide regular teacher training, including classroom management techniques, that have revolutionized the tone of classes for boys and girls. Instead of hours of repetition and strict methods to control behavior, teachers have learned how to interact with students, provide activities and use new classroom management tools. And mothers, although they still give up extra hours of help in the home when girls go to school, now come together in mothers' groups and meet at individual schools. They encourage each other to enroll their daughters and ensure they succeed.
Mothers Key to Daughters' Futures
While fathers and religious leaders are vital to education systems and support, it's mothers who ensure children attend class, complete homework and encourage siblings in learning.
Tahira* is one of those mothers. Her daughters—Takia, 10, Taslime, 7, and Nayab, 5—have been enrolled in school for 1 year.
"After I received training from CRS, I became aware of the importance of education," Tahira says. "I was inspired by verses from the Quran. My boys had been attending school, but they were not focused and did not enjoy it. My girls never attended school. I was inspired by meeting the teacher of the girls' class, and when I was satisfied with her methods and the trainings she had received, I decided to enroll all three girls."
The barriers to her daughters attending school were strong, as she lives far away from the nearest school for girls.
"The people in my village are happy with religious education only," says Tahira. "I answer that my daughters will still get religious education as they learn to read and write, and it is worthwhile for them to study a wider range of subjects."
Now that her daughters have a year of school behind them, Tahira reflects on the shift in her family.
"I've seen a positive change in the girls. When they only attended the [religious school], they didn't care about taking care of themselves or their belongings, like notebooks. Now they take care of their schoolbooks. They are kinder to each other. They help each other study. I hope my daughters will continue through a high school class and become teachers themselves."
Nighat*, the teacher of Tahira's children at Government Girls Primary School in Besham, is grateful that Tahira and other mothers come together for regular meetings.
"The mothers' group for my school has been key to better education," says Nighat. "The mothers care, and then the students do better."
The long-term commitment from CRS to schools in Besham has been critical to Nighat's success in the classroom.
"Other trainings from different organizations were short term, just 4 to 6 months," she says. "CRS has supported us for a long period of time. The female CRS staff respond to our questions through [text messages] at any time."
This approach to education isn't simple, but starting with a communities' most important value—faith—and moving forward to build support in the family has paid dividends. Instead of telling families that education is important, it has become part of the fabric of villages. That bodes well for the long-term prospects for girls' education—and that dedication to learning reaches down to the youngest students.
After class, one tiny girl crouches in the schoolyard as her friends chat and play. She scratches in the dust with a stick, eyebrows knitted in concentration. "She's practicing writing her name," the teacher says. "She wants it to be beautiful."
*Names of adult women have been changed for their protection.
Jennifer Hardy is the CRS regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Women have been crucial to ensuring that their daughters, granddaughters and nieces have the opportunity to attend school in northern Pakistan. Because the community does not permit photographs of adult women, these photographs of girls in the classroom are coupled with quotes from the women who work tirelessly to ensure they can go to school.
*Names have been changed. Girls pictured are not related to women quoted. Photos by Jennifer Hardy/CRS