Karachi: Humaira Bachal knows firsthand how lack of education hurts her community. She had a cousin who died because his mother couldn’t read the expiry date on a bottle of medicine. She knows women who died giving birth at home because their families didn’t send them to the hospital.
Through hard work and a sweet-but-stubborn attitude, 26-year-old Bachal has gone from a teenager who hid her school books from her father, to running a foundation in Mawach Goth that teaches 1,200 boys and girls at her Dream Model Street School. In this area it’s hard even for boys in Mawach Goth to get a decent learning, while families often keep their girls out of school.
With help from domestic and international donations — Madonna has given money — the foundation is building a new 18-room home for the school, which now has 33 teachers. It will be a massive improvement from their current site, a rented one-storey, cinder-block building with curtains dividing the classrooms.
Like many others in the country, Bachal’s family didn’t want to educate their daughter. She finished primary school but her father forbade her to continue, preferring his eldest daughter get married. But she continued to study in secret with her mother’s help, hiding her school uniform and books at a friend’s house.
This went on for nine months until one day when she was preparing to go to school for a test, her father came home early and asked where she was going. When he discovered that she had been secretly attending school, he was livid and slapped her cheek. A showdown ensued between her parents with her father beating her mother and her mother defiantly telling Bachal to go to school.
Eventually her father agreed to let her continue her education as long as she married whomever he chose. Though she has yet to marry but Bachal certainly pursued her studies. She graduated from high school, got a bachelor’s degree, is studying for her master´s, and has also learned English.
Her dedication draws comparison to 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who survived a point-blank shot to her forehead by the Taliban gunman in 2012. However, Bachal sid she hasn’t faced any violence, just stiff resistance from community elders.
She started out at the age of 13 with help from her younger sister Tahira, in a makeshift classroom in her house where she taught about 10 of her girlfriends who were not able to go to school. Within two years, she had moved her now-150 students, Tahira and three other girls who had joined as teachers into a rented building.
At the same time, she lobbied families in her neighborhood to send their children to school although the reception wasn´t always great. She said local elders asked her family to move, saying they weren’t a good influence on others.
Once, the owner of the building she was renting also tried to lock them out, so they held classes in the street until he relented.
Bachal’s sister, Tahira, is now studying accounting and is the principal of Dream Model Street School. The Dream Foundation, which Bachal heads, runs the school and offers mentoring programs, health screening for students and teacher training.
“The community is made up of labourers and people who are non-skilled workers. So Bachal has had to convince them why education is important to begin with,” said Academy Award-winning Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who s made a film about her school. “Here are people who have eight or ten children who they want earning.”
Many students at Bachal’s school and their parents said that she personally visited their families and persuaded them.
“I thought it might be God´s help that she came to our door,” said Salma Haji, a teacher who volunteered to help at the school after Bachal visited her home.
One parent, Ashraf Khattoon, said her father and uncle taunted her for educating her daughters, insisting that they should be married off. But Khattoon wants her daughters to be “civilized” and, “Not like me… I am illiterate”.
Meanwhile, a government-run school just a short drive away vividly shows the dismal state of education in the country. The two-story building looks abandoned, with no windows or furniture and no doors on the bathroom stalls. After class, the teacher rolls up the carpet from the concrete floor and stores it at the factory across the street so it won´t get stolen.
By contrast, the new building under construction for the Dream Model Street School is an oasis of color and order. One floor has already been completed. Students sit on chairs at desks in classrooms with walls plastered with teaching aids describing vowels or endangered animals. There are separate toilets for boys and girls.
Her father has come around to her project — and one of her three elder step-brothers sends his kids to her school. She doesn’t necessarily think she´s won over everyone, but she’s worn them down. “Some people don’t like what I’m doing but there’s a way to convey the message to these kinds of people,” she said. Her next dream? Building a university.