Transitional schools keep children learning in earthquake-affected areas of Pakistan

By Sandra Bisin

AZAD JAMMU AND KASHMIR, Pakistan, 11 May 2007 - At 1 p.m., 54 students are actively participating in a mathematics class at Sarikala Government Girls' Primary School in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, north-eastern Pakistan. They frown and concentrate on the blackboard but smile mischievously from time to time.

Despite the temperature reaching up to 37 degrees Celsius outside, the air circulates easily through the windows of the brand new school building and keeps the atmosphere cool.

Twelve-year-old Zaeen's face lights up when she is asked about her new school environment. "Everything is so much better with the new school," she exclaims. "I like it even more than the building we had before the earthquake. It is so nice and fresh inside! We pinned Meena posters to the walls, and our teacher even put curtains on the windows." (Meena is a cartoon character featured in educational materials developed by UNICEF in South Asia.)

"Of course I am still a bit scared that another earthquake might hit my community again, but at least I feel more secure," Zaeen adds.

From tents to transitional shelters

The October 2005 earthquake that claimed at least 73,000 lives in northern Pakistan severely affected Zaeen's school. Immediately after the disaster, UNICEF delivered a tent to temporarily house the school

"But it was extremely difficult to teach in the tent because of the terrible heat in summer and the extreme cold during winter," recalls teacher Shamin Akhtar. "This new school is now a much safer and nurturing environment. Psychologically, the children and I also feel better. I can now concentrate on teaching, and students can focus on learning."

In March of this year, UNICEF initiated the construction of transitional shelters to provide children in remote earthquake-affected locations - including Zaeen and her classmates at Sarikala - with a safe learning environment.

Commitment to rebuild schools

"UNICEF has developed clear criteria for constructing these structures," explains Emergency Education Officer Brenda Haiplick. "The fact that no other organization has committed to build a permanent school building in the selected location is one of them.

"Community participation can significantly reduce the cost of the transitional shelter school," Ms. Haiplick continues. "The fact that several schools are situated in mountainous areas, where access is difficult, poses an additional challenge."

About 200,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly $3,300) and six weeks of work were needed to build the transitional Sarikala school.

"Sarikala primary school is made of a cement base, corrugated iron sheets, plain galvanized iron sheets, wood, plywood and plastic for the windows," says UNICEF Construction Project Officer Rahman Ullah.

UNICEF also provided basic sanitation facilities in the school by constructing latrines to accommodate the 54 students and their teacher. And a water supply system was restored to promote safe sanitation practices.

Continuing support

Across six earthquake-affected districts of northern Pakistan, UNICEF has supported the enrolment of about 400,000 children at government primary schools - including more than 13,000 children, mostly girls, who had never attended school before. More than 4,800 schools have been set up in temporary shelters and supplied with teaching aids, learning materials and teachers.

This spring, UNICEF starts construction on a first set of 125 permanent primary schools to serve both out-of-school and currently enrolled children, as well as future students.

UNICEF's major donors for education activities in quake-affected areas of Pakistan are the Australian Government (through the Australian Agency for International Development, or AusAid), the Canadian International Development Agency, the European Commission and the Government of the Netherlands.