By A. Sami Malik
MUZAFFARGARH, Punjab, 2 March 2012 – The entire community of the small village of Peer Dargai Shah, in the Muzaffargarh District of southern Punjab, turned up to celebrate a special occasion. The new primary school, built with funding from UNICEF and the Government of the Netherlands, was being inaugurated.
Dressed in their best attire, people gathered in and around the freshly painted school. For students of the Peer Dargai Shah Primary School, it was a matter of special pride. Carrying their school bags, the children ran to make sure they arrived at the school before the guests.
Men and children danced to the beat of a drum as Hugo Scheltema, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Pakistan, and UNICEF Deputy Representative in Pakistan Karen Allen arrived for the official opening.
The new school is part of a programme to replace schools damaged or destroyed by the 2010 floods with ‘Child Friendly Schools’ – schools that provide healthy, inclusive and empowering environments for students. The programme has already benefitted nearly 7,000 children.
The honoured guests received bouquets from the children and unveiled a plaque to inaugurate the new school.
Rehabilitating schools and children
A year and a half ago, Pakistan was hit by the worst floods in its history. Flood water covered the length and breadth of the country, causing severe damage to vital infrastructure. Muzaffargarh was one of the worst-hit districts in Punjab Province, with the education sector suffering a major blow.
Shahnaz Ramzan, 11, a fifth-grade student at the Peer Dargai Shah Primary School recalled, “Our school, before the floods, had two rooms and a boundary wall. One of the rooms and the boundary wall collapsed in floods. Our houses were also destroyed.”
UNICEF has to-date constructed 35 schools in the three worst-affected districts of southern Punjab – Muzaffargarh, Rajanpur and Rahimyar Khan.
“The Child-Friendly Schooling approach is interactive and makes learning fun for children,” said Ms. Allen. “It includes elements of health and hygiene, through the provision of safe drinking water and improved sanitation. Young children are prepared for school with Early Childhood and Development education. A playground and play equipment encourage healthy physical activities. Other features include psychosocial support for rehabilitation of disaster-affected children and involvement of parents and the community.”
A whole new approach
As a major contributor to UNICEF’s work in Punjab, the Government of the Netherlands provided US$1.2 million for school construction. Other major donors include Italy, Hungary, Sweden and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
“I feel delighted to see these beautiful schools that UNICEF has built to help the children in the flood-affected districts of Punjab,” said Ambassador Scheltema. “Increased enrollment after floods – and the keenness of parents to send their children to school – makes it very clear that there is need for more schools and more teachers. I am proud that we as the Dutch Government were able to support UNICEF.”
Local children are now receiving a quality education in an environment conducive to learning, and teachers are excited to use new teaching and learning materials. For children, this is not just a resumption of education, but the beginning of a whole new approach to learning.
In the aftermath of the disaster, “we were worried about our education,” said Shahnaz. “When UNICEF came, they first gave us a tent and have now made us this beautiful school.”