In the long winding lanes of the Omar Farooqui neighbourhood near Tarnol, a girl of 10 goes to her local school every day. Every morning she wakes up, has breakfast, attends her classes, does her homework, helps around the house, then gets ready for school the next day. But there is something different about this schoolgirl, Zainab, for while these are all normal activities that school children do, there was a great likelihood that Zainab would never get the chance to do any of these.

The young girl from Mansehra was diagnosed, upon birth, with Dextrocardia with Situs Inversus, a rare heart condition in which her heart is on the right side of her chest.  Her heart is also too large for her body. The doctors said there was no cure- Zainab had no choice but to wait to grow into the organs over the years. The heart condition prevents her from indulging in any activities that can cause stress to the body, and many days were spent watching siblings and neighbourhood children play games and build close friendships. But school kept her spirit going and when Alight, formerly known as the American Refugee Committee, opened a free school for primary school children in her neighbourhood, Zainab was in high spirits.

‘I love studying, watching TV shows, and teaching my younger siblings.’ She says, sitting on a charpai outside her school classroom. The school consists entirely of one classroom, part of a house that the teacher, Kiran, volunteered to provide. Kiran was happy to offer her home for the local school. ‘Someone once asked me why I need to teach girls. That comment made me determined to teach girls.’ Her school has 40 students, 23 of them are girls. More students want to enrol but a lack of space prevents them.

Alight’s non-formal schools are village-centered or community-centered schools that offer greater flexibility. The accelerated curriculum, designed by JICA in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Education and Professional Training, fast-tracks students so they can complete primary grades in 32 months instead of 60. This will facilitate OOSCs in joining the mainstream education system in a shorter time span and recover lost time. APL has been adopted by the Federal Ministry of Education and Professional Development and Non Formal Literacy departments of Balochistan, Sindh and KPK provinces. And this is working – in the first year of Alight’s project which began in 2018 with support from Qatar’s Education Above All, the organisation reported a retention rate of 83%.

‘My favorite subject is English. I want to be a teacher,’ Zainab responded with enthusiasm when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. And while her parents are supportive of her education, in many communities, discouragement or outright prohibition of education remains the consistent barrier that many young girls face. According to UNICEF, some 22.8 million children in Pakistan do not attend school. This population is in a sense in the dark ages, but reaching these out of school children through innovative partnerships between the public and private sectors and engaging with local communities will be crucial in increasing education access for Pakistan’s next generation.