After finishing elementary school, Qismat Rani had nowhere to go. Her small village in Pakistan’s Nankana District had only one government school for girls that went up to and finished at the fifth grade. So, her parents forced her to marry.
“When my mother said it was time, I refused and argued that I wanted to continue studying,” Qismat said. “My maternal aunt wanted me to marry her son, who was in his 30s. She came over with a Quran one day, and that was that.”
She was only 14 at the time. “I didn’t even know what marriage was.”
As it happened, the marriage lasted only three months. “One day I got sick and asked my husband for medicine. When he didn’t give me any, I asked my father to come and take me home,” Qismat said. “Later that night, I got a call saying he’d run away with someone else.”
A struggle to get back to school
After the divorce, Qismat moved back to live with her parents and younger sister. There was little to do except harvest crops and tend to livestock. “She was depressed,” her mother said. “We wanted to keep her busy, but there wasn’t a school in the area that we could send her to.”
Everything changed when 25-year-old Fazeelat Banu, a teacher from a neighboring village, came knocking.“When I told her I had come to set up a middle school in the area and that I was looking for girls to enroll, she started crying,” Fazeelat said.
The school Fazeelat was talking about was part of a USAID program implemented by the Sanjh Preet Organization. Thirty-three schools covering sixth through eighth grade, catering to girls between 11 and 19 who had finished the fifth grade, would be set up in villages like Qismat’s that lacked middle schools for girls.
The nearest government middle school is in a town 5 miles away, said Mehnaz Rizwan, who oversees the program. “They can’t commute both because there is a lack of safe transport options and because their parents don’t permit them to travel that far alone.”
Even after setting up the school, the team struggled to convince parents of the importance of educating their daughters.
“Some families said that if their daughters didn’t work, they wouldn’t have enough money to put food on the table, while others said that they needed their daughters to carry out the housework while their sons attended schools in nearby towns.” — Mehnaz Rizwan
Winning hearts across her community
Qismat played a big part in winning the community over by going door-to-door and convincing other girls to join her. “I told them that I was going to study and that it wouldn’t be much fun doing so alone,” she said. She also gathered the girls’ parents and convinced them to attend regular “Mother Meetings” so that they could be an active part of their daughters’ progress.
In a classroom of around 30 girls, all under the age of 19, around seven were married and two had children.
“It’s more than a school. We stick together and support each other. It’s like a second home that came ready with a new family.” — Qismat
In addition to school, Qismat works in her village, administering medicine to livestock. “I have to provide for my parents,” she said. Her father is diabetic and her mother has high blood pressure; it falls on Qismat to care and cook for them.
Her employer has told her that if she keeps studying, they’ll promote her. But she’s confident that she’ll be able to find a better job eventually.
Her pride and happiness
“When I first started teaching them, the girls knew little,” the teacher, Fazeelat, said. “They only spoke Punjabi and got confused when I’d speak in Urdu or English. I just persisted and used new words. Slowly, they started understanding me. And now they can read and write.”
Qismat can’t get enough of school. Though her favorite subject is math, she loves taking her Urdu and English books to a field behind her house, where she reads leaning against the trunk of a massive tree.
“School broke her cycle of depression by occupying her mind again.” — Qismat’s mother
Lately, Qismat has become something of a local heroine. Her peers nominated her to be a monitor and when it’s time for the weekly “Mother Meeting,” she zips around the village, gathering everyone’s parents and bringing them to the school yard.
Qismat is insistent on many things: she’ll never marry again; when she graduates eighth grade she will start commuting so that she can finish high school; and eventually she’ll get a job good enough to provide for herself and her family. “I chose my own destiny — a destiny still in the making, but my deliberate choices led me to where I am today.”
“Everyone wants to have a son around here. But if girls get an education and can provide for their families, what’s the difference between a son and a daughter?” — Qismat
Today, Qismat is paving a new destiny for herself and the girls in her community. By supporting girls education in Pakistan and around the world, USAID is empowering adolescent girls to get the education they deserve.
About the Author
This blog was prepared by staff at USAID’s mission in Pakistan.