“They stare at me as if they’re going to eat me.”
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Seventeen-year-old Sawera could become the first person in her family to finish primary education. But to achieve that, she has to get through the daily walk to her school in a slum in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. She is one of few women out alone, and when boys and men stare at her in the street she feels afraid - with good reason.
Studying could help Sawera escape her low-paid evening job as housemaid for three families, but learning takes courage in Pakistan.
Harassment, violence and sexual assault are commonplace in both classrooms and the streets that lead to them, especially for girls. In Pakistan, 43% of children have experienced violence at school, and in half of reported cases teachers and school staff are named as the perpetrators.
The fear of beatings, sexual assaults, emotional abuse and threats means that many girls forfeit the right to education altogether.
Sakina, who is 15 and also from Islamabad’s slums, almost gave up. One day, when she was walking home from school through narrow lanes, a boy on a motorbike approached her, put his hand over her mouth and tried to rape her. He threatened to hurt her if she protested, while his friends watched and laughed.
“It is very hard to talk about what happened to me,” says Sakina, who wants to study to become a fashion designer. She escaped from her attacker and her family reported it to the police, when others would have scorned and shamed their daughter. The boy who attacked her told police they were a couple, and his family even suggested they should get married, though Sakina’s family refused.
The police had little sympathy, she explains: “They made things worse, and I feel my reputation is ruined for ever. Everyone at school knows what happened, and so I stopped going a few days later.”
Sixty per cent of girls in Islamabad’s slums don’t go to school: they have either stopped or never started. Sakina says her life came to an “abrupt halt” after the attack, but she is now building up the confidence to return this Autumn.
Many schools in the slums are near markets, meaning girls are easy prey as they walk through amongst crowds of traffic and men. In one slum, workers for the charity Plan International say poor parents are aware of the risks but send their children through the market because free food is handed out nearby.
Sakina is just one of 337,000 girls who experience violence at school or on the way to school every day - the equivalent of four girls a second. Though boys are also targetted, girls are more at risk because the violence is linked to beliefs about gender in countries like Pakistan, Plan claims.
The idea that a woman is ‘shamed’ if she is assaulted means a family’s actions can as brutal as the attackers in the world outside. Faridah, who lives in a province outside Islamabad, was often harassed on her journey to school but “kept it to myself, because I knew that if my family found out, they would keep me home.”
She was right: they forced her to drop out at 12, when her grandfather found out about the abuse and beat her. When she was forced to marry at 15, her husband also refused to let her to learn: “He said there was no point in educating girls, since the jobs go to boys anyway. He was often furious when I defied him and went to school, and he began beating me. The situation went from bad to worse, and in the end he threw me out.”
Faridah’s passion for studying is unassuaged, despite her family’s concern that her now-estranged husband will divorce her. “I totally disagree with my family,” she says. “I feel it is terribly important that married women and girls also can go to school. What I learn at school will help me look after my children better, and it will give me and my family a better standard of living. I believe it is entirely possible to be a student while also respecting my husband and my Pakistani culture. When my husband returns, I am not going to give in.”
As girls like Faridah increasingly push back against their abusers, the work of charities and local pastors and volunteers is redefining attitudes too. Through a combination of open discussion meetings and awareness-raising, a community is mobilising.
Teachers and 5,000 policemen in Pakistan are being trained in child protection. Rukhtaj, a former teacher who now works for Plan, says she wasn’t even aware of the problem before. She feels she was “too strict” with the children and “ashamed” of her work, but now reminds children of three essential words: “No! Go! Tell! Say no when you feel that someone is trying to get you to do something you think is wrong. Go, and tell others what happened.”
Rukhtaj believes girls increasingly understand what abuse is, and are comfortable to report it. Education is the key, as she is “because even among teachers and principals there is still an attitude that the problem does not exist.”
Community-led schemes are also empowering women: Plan runs forums for children of different ages, where frank discussion is encouraged. “Openness is important. We know that many cases of violence, abuse and harassment are not reported because it is taboo and associated with shame,” says Rukhtaj. “When I see children become aware of their rights through the children’s forum and see the parents recognise their rights, for example to schooling, I am very proud”.
Despite their fears for their daughters’ safety, more parents in Pakistan now value education and do more to keep their children studying. Thirteen-year-old Shazna’s family were terrified when a boy in her class wrote his name on her arm, and another stole a picture of her. They pulled Shazna out of her school, but moved her to another instead of stopping her education completely.
“My brother was probably scared, but I like school and want to continue going,” she insists. She now has to study with eight and nine-year-olds and is teased because she is older, but is determined to “make up for lost time.”
Saima, a health worker, says that progress is also being fueled by interaction with mothers: “Mothers are negatively influenced by what they see on TV. It is therefore important to raise awareness and work to change attitudes so that they can become better at protecting their children.”
Ejaz, a pastor who has lived in the slums of Islamabad for 18 years, is optimistic about the future. He is a leader of a ‘citizen’s group’ where volunteers trained in child protection knock doors, talking to families about how to avoid abuse and make sure boys and girls have equal opportunities. “Because we have organised groups that regularly visit people, we know more about what is happening,” he says. “Consequently we can also rapidly intervene and do something, if bad things are going on.”
He is realistic that it will take years to change a society where “boys are by definition born with authority and virtually given immunity to being corrected”. But a key step has been teaching the children themselves about their rights. “Now they know more about what they are entitled to and how they can protect themselves. That’s why kids dare to speak up now.”
Projects like his are being copied in other areas, and Ejaz believes that as more people stand up to defend girls, others will be inspired to do the same. “It's all about holding people accountable,” Ejaz says. “Our success is contagious.”