Atop a mound of rubbish a few furlongs to the west of Karachi’s most expensive food street, Boat Basin, where people usually pay in four figures for a meal, stands a makeshift school, where 40 to 50 students are memorising their lessons in loud voices.
Their teacher Saima Saghir has brought them here to study from nearby shanties located south of Hijrat Colony, which itself is a slum area in Saddar Town. Sitting barefoot on plastic mats spread over the school’s rough ground, these ragged children have half an hour to revise, following which each of them has to stand before the entire class and repeat what they have learned.
Sometimes affected by spells of cough when rubbish is set on fire close by, they have no other choice but to memorise their lessons as soon as possible so they could return home. The school was set up by the Initiator Human Development Foundation (IHDF), a nonprofit that provides education and support to disadvantaged children, and is the only beacon of hope for these children.
After completing their basics and being issued with birth certificates by the IHDF, they will be able to get an admission in a government school wherever they move to.
“The school is situated just in the outskirts of the posh Defence Housing Authority and near a red zone,” said IHDF President Rana Asif Habib. “But due to the criminal negligence of the relevant authorities, these children are unable to get access to education even at a public school, which is their fundamental right.”
Habib said their parents have no proper documentation, so when they approach government schools, their children are refused admission and then they are sent to beg or sell things at traffic signals.
“Although Article 25A of the Constitution of Pakistan clearly says that the state will provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and 16, the authorities and politicians are least bothered.”
He said the Sindh Child Protection Authority Act 2011 also guarantees the rights of children and stresses on decreasing child labour, but the authorities are not devoted and honest, so the only reason behind such a failure is non-implementation of laws.
“We have set up a mobile child protection unit and a school to serve our society, because government institutions are not functioning as they should be.”
He lamented that if the disadvantaged make their home somewhere, the authorities demolish their huts because they are seen as encroachers and are forced to leave. In such a situation, he said, most of them are deprived of proper documentation, including national ID cards and birth certificates.
The fate of nomads
Bhuddal, 28, said nomads move from place to place after every three to four months, according to the needs of finding work, so children born in shanties get no opportunity to be enrolled at a formal school.
“It’s been our fate from generation to generation. Our ancestors were uneducated because they had no fixed place to live,” he said, adding that he wanted to enrol his four children at a school but his resources are limited.
Another local, 32-year-old Hira Lal, said that due to lack of education, the nomadic community has suffered a lot of social problems. “Our people have no proof of citizenship, access to health and other basic rights. If my son were only able to read a newspaper someday, it would be the happiest day of my life.”
He said it is their tradition to get married early in life. “When our young reach the age of 20, they are already looking after three to four children, so how can their children get an education?” He does not know of any other way of living, except finding shelter in a makeshift hut made of old clothes and wood, and that too for a short period of time.
The teacher’s challenges
Saima Saghir, who has been teaching these children at the makeshift school since the past two years, said the age difference between the students in a single class creates difficulties. “In a single class I teach a five-year-old child as well as a 15-year-old boy or girl, and each of them has a different capacity for understanding.”
However, she adopts the method of informal education. She also assists these children in getting their birth certificates from the IHDF. She also teaches them how to eat, wash and clothe themselves. “We motivate their parents by idealising school uniform, books and access to education for these children of shanties.”