By Malcolm Brabant
LAYYAH DISTRICT, Pakistan, 6 April 2011 – Pakistan's catastrophic flooding last summer is leading to a change in attitudes towards sending girls to school.
UNICEF's Malcolm Brabant reports on changing attitudes towards education for girls in rural Pakistan. Watch in RealPlayer: http://www.unicef.org/videoaudio/ramfiles/9734m_pakistaneducationtemlearningctrs.ram
The floods, which affected the Indus River basin from the Himalayan foothills to the Arabian Sea, damaged approximately 10,000 schools, of which more than a third was completely destroyed.
Thousands of parents in rural areas have traditionally declined to send their daughters to school. But the flood waters forced them out of their villages into areas where UNICEF has set up temporary learning centres (TLCs) to try to minimise the impact of the disaster on children's education.
Their coming into contact with education for the first time has been extremely encouraging, explained UNICEF Deputy Representative in Pakistan Karen Allen.
"We saw a real birth of motivation in the little girls but also in the parents, who said, 'Maybe we should consider sending our girls to school because, well, look how happy it made them and they were really learning useful things,'" said Ms. Allen.
She added that such a mind shift is now more likely to continue when the children return home.
Noor Khatoon, 11, from Dadu District in Sindh province, showed me her school which has been declared unsafe due to waterlogging. In her classroom, there is a pile of books in a cupboard that have turned black and mouldy.
There is a tented TLC in the playground, which holds classes for younger pupils.
"I want my school to be rebuilt so I can start going to school again," said Noor.
UNICEF is targeting 1.3 million children aged between four and 12 with education response activities, and is aiming to strengthen education institutions by training over 12,000 teachers. To date, UNICEF-supported TLCs have reached about 240,000 children and more than 4,000 teachers have been trained in child-centred teaching methods.
Further north, in Mulla Wala village in Southern Punjab, Aqsa Rehman, 9, happily rocks backwards and forwards in an open-air TLC while reading aloud, her fingers tracing words in a paperback book.
Aqsa's education was greatly disrupted by the floods when her school was destroyed. She has since begun classes at a TLC and is now reading with the full confidence of a fourth grader.
"We will come to school, even if we have to struggle for it," said Aqsa. "We will help our people by replacing everything they have lost in the floods."
Investing in the future
Aqsa's father, Haji Abdur Reahman, works in a vegetable market in Karachi, hundreds of miles from his family. Nine out of his ten children attend school.
"I am educating them so that they have a bright future and a comfortable life," he said. "When the girls get married, their in-laws will treat them with respect."
Hanging out the washing, Aqsa's aunt, Iqbal Bibi, had a wistful but determined look as she explained that educating their children was a means to a better life.
"We hardly have enough to eat or to feed the children, but are still educating them so that they can become better people and get rid of poverty," she said.
The biggest challenge facing UNICEF and the Pakistani authorities is in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where the Taliban is engaged in a violent campaign against the education of girls and boys.
A total of 710 schools have been bombed in KP alone in the last two years and more than 640 schools have been destroyed or damaged in Malakand, the worst-hit region in the province.