Helping Educate Pakistan, One Student at a Time

In early October, Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani activist for education and women’s rights in her home of Swat, Pakistan, was shot in the head and neck by the Taliban while returning home on a school bus. She is currently recovering from the assassination attempt in the United Kingdom. The tragedy brought global attention to the educational situation in this remote region of Pakistan, where Give2Asia partner Rizwan Scholars has been providing scholarships for nearly 10 years. Samina Rizwan of Rizwan Scholars goes in-depth on Malala, education in Swat, and how Rizwan Scholars and you can help

By Samina Rizwan
November 6, 2012

Upwards of 400 schools have been destroyed in Swat, Pakistan over the past few years, 70% of them girls’ schools. The number increases exponentially – into a few thousand – when applied across the northwestern province of Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK), the area that Malala Yousafzai belongs to, and also the area from which Rizwan Scholars (Rizscholars) receives the maximum number of applications for scholarships.

As it is, the Government of Pakistan typically allocates an insufficient portion of its  annual budget  to education. No effective policy alteration has happened in this regard, no matter what political party may be in power or what nature of dictatorship the country may be suffering. Aggravating the situation is the violence that especially KPK continues to suffer, due to its frontline status, as a result of the so-called War on Terror.  Whether a family loses its means of income to economic deterioration, or life and property are destroyed by militants or drones, the children of Pakistan invariably pay the highest price.

Despite the incredible misfortune that the Pakistani people suffer, Rizscholars believes that the masses’ desire for education burns ever brighter and stronger.  Our scholarship statistics prove this. The number of applications for scholarship that Rizscholars receives from KPK continues to rise, now approximately 20 a week, nearly double that from the rest of the country. Most of these are from male candidates, only a few from females.  All boast the best results at district, often at provincial level, and all remain tenaciously committed to continuing their education against ostensibly insurmountable odds.  At the time of selection, Rizscholars’ Board and Management are often confronted with a predicament; from an unequivocally qualified group of young Pakistanis, who to select, who to reject…

An interview session at Rizscholars is a revelation, even for us who have been doing it for 9 years.  We call for interviews several weeks in advance because it often requires that much time for the candidates to pull together the money to bus down to Islamabad, Karachi or Lahore.  Candidates often travel a full day or more to reach us and upon departure, we find ourselves giving them money to travel back; the poverty these young people are stricken with is difficult to comprehend and articulate. It is all worth it of course, because the interview is often inspiring, humbling and exhilarating all at the same time. We sit across from a young man or woman, modestly or poorly dressed, seldom able to formulate extensive sentences in English but brilliant in applying their native dialect or Urdu to the conversation. We hear horrific tales of loss and tragedy; family members killed in earthquake or floods or shot brazenly by militants, homes and fields annihilated in drone attacks, school and college buildings here today gone tomorrow thanks to bombs planted by intolerant elements of society, businesses already meager completely lost to massive displacement of entire communities.

Then, with equal dignity and poise, and never an expression of self-pity, we receive answers to the question “What if we are unable to support your higher education program? Will you be able to continue, or will you be forced to abandon it?”.  It may seem over-stated, but never have we heard a single candidate say “I guess I will abandon it then because I certainly can not manage on my own.”  Amongst the rainbow of answers we find resolve, courage, tenacity, ferocious commitment, some amount of fear at the possibility of being refused; all this, but never a word about just giving up!

As a foundational principle, Rizscholars has remained committed to bridging the gender gap amongst the scholars that we support.  Our aim is to reach a 2:1 ratio between male and female scholars; equalizing the ratio is practically impossible since, at college level, there simply are far fewer female candidates due to social practices and compulsions. So, while we have never diluted our two-pronged selection criteria, i.e. compelling financial need and exceptionally brilliant academic record, we always let applications from females skip the queue and get assessed earliest.  It is interesting to note that 98% of female applicants clear due diligence and interview with flying colours and receive approval for scholarship. Those who know Pakistanis and especially Pakhtuns through global media as a violent, backward and misguided lot may not believe this, but every female candidate who arrives for an interview at our office does so with complete support and encouragement from the men in her family, father and brothers alike. Repeated observations where the men have taken great pains to help their daughters/sisters receive the best education available convinces us that for every young Pakistani woman who becomes a Rizwan Scholar, for every Malala who steadfastly refuses to abandon her right to education, there are not hundreds but thousands more with a burning desire for education, and whose fathers – like Malala’s – support them courageously.

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