STORY 09 - 21 FEBRUARY 2014 - HUMAIRA BACHAL: TURNING ADVERSITY INTO OPPORTUNITY
Pakistani children face many obstacles when trying to get an education, such as problems of access, poor quality schooling, or family pressure to go to work. For girls the situation is often even more difficult, with many parents still viewing education as unnecessary and preferring that girls stay at home. But some young women are so determined to go to school that they refuse to be held back and in the process open up a new path for others to follow.
“Why don’t my brothers like me? Why are women not valued in this society? Why can’t a poor woman read the expiry date on the medicine she is giving her children?” asks Humaira Bachal, an exceptional woman who has dedicated her life to educating less privileged children. “These are the questions that planted a seed in me to change things.”
Raised in a family of migrants from Thatta, Sindh, Bachal grew up in the impoverished settlement of Mawach Goth on the outskirts of Karachi. Although her mother was uneducated she valued schooling but Bachal’s father opposed the idea of his daughters studying beyond primary school.
“After primary school, my mother raised money by selling firewood and sewing to send us to school, and we did not tell our father,” Bachal recalls. “My father found out I was in school on the day of my board exams.” Her father was furious but eventually the family persuaded him to allow the children to continue their studies.
By the age of 12, it was already clear that Bachal had greater things in mind than simply going to school herself. She set up an informal school in her own home to teach other children in the neighbourhood. Twelve years on, the small school she set up in her home has grown to become the Dream Foundation Trust, educating up to 1,200 students for the nominal fee of 1 rupee a day.
Bachal’s Dream Model Street School was supported initially by the Rotary Club. Over the years, many organisations and individuals have stepped up to contribute to the work. “I started with a few friends and my classes started growing. Now we are constructing a proper school building.”
The school runs from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM, offering classes from the primary level all the way up to Matric. Importantly, there are incentives to encourage families to educate their daughters: for every girl that parents agree to send to the school, the Dream Foundation allows two other children to study for free. Orphaned children also study free of charge.
The school runs until late in the night because it also caters to those who are not of traditional school-going age, with special classes for adult women and for children who work during the day. With 22 teachers at the moment, the school maintains a student-teacher ratio of 32:1.
Bachal believes that her work is not simply about teaching people how to read and write. “We want to challenge the system of rote learning that is found in government schools in Pakistan.” For example, Bachal has plans to build an outdoor space within the school for children to learn about plants and animals through exploration and discovery. “We encourage critical thinking, analysis, learning through discovery, and research, and our teaching methods don’t rely on memorising information. We want to train others to do the same.”
The next challenge for Dream Foundation is to engage and work with the entire community. The aim is not just to educate a child but to help the entire family. “If we don’t help improve the lot of the family, then in many cases educating the children is not enough,” Bachal explains. “If we don’t focus on the family, we end up creating conflict in the community and in the family. We want the school to be an integral part of the community.” Dream Foundation has also set up vocational training programmes and a skills development centre for women to help students gain employment after their studies and enable members of the community to increase their earnings.
“My aim is not to build schools all over the country because that is the government’s responsibility,” Bachal says. “I want the government to realise its responsibility. I want to build a place where children can get a quality education and help others do the same, but at the end of the day we want to force the government into fulfil its responsibility, and we want to help government schools improve the quality of education they provide.”
Bachal’s story shows that no matter what the odds, determination can go a long way towards shifting attitudes and making change happen on the ground. She has proven that with perseverance, a young girl with a dream to help others can transform the lives of thousands.