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Books and stories: An alumna’s vision of improving literacy in Pakistan

Posted: 12 October 2023

Pakistan, Alumni, Education, Impact,

Bushra Rahim received her Master of Educational Administration and Policy from the University of New England in Australia in 2008 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Since then, she has been working to educate girls and empower women in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) in Pakistan for more than a decade. Soon after completing her degree, she founded a non-profit organisation called the Development Agent for Change; she is also the president of a social enterprise led by women called the Association of Business, Professional and Agricultural Women.

‘My studies in Australia helped me to learn about the policies and procedures required to establish a non-profit organisation, as well as the management required to run it,’ Bushra says. ‘This gave birth to the creation of my social enterprise [focused on] the urgent need to address the increasing problem of out-of-school children in KPK.’

To tackle this issue among children in low-income communities, Bushra founded the Ujala schools. There are four Ujala schools operating in various parts of the city of Peshawar. More than 300 street children—two-thirds of them girls—are enrolled in these schools. These children are benefiting from access to free primary education, including school bags, books and stationery, all of which is funded by donations. Due to the lack of resources and funding, Bushra adopted a model of partnering with local government schools and low-cost private schools: after normal operating hours, these schools make their premises available to provide out-of-school children with a safe and secure area in which to study.

Bushra also arranged memoranda of understanding with some of the best education institutes in Peshawar to offer scholarships to qualified students. ‘After completing certain grades, the children can undertake a scholarship test,’ Bushra says. ‘If they qualify, they are provided with free sponsored education in credible private schools in Peshawar.’ So far, 35 children have received scholarships and are currently enrolled in such schools.

Students reading books in an Ujala school founded by Bushra.

Students reading books in an Ujala school founded by Bushra.

The learnings from the months spent launching and running Ujala schools revealed a major gap in the students’ reading ability and vocabulary. ‘Reading books is on a steady decline in the province of KPK and is nearly negligible. Poor access to storybooks and a lack of storytelling culture among families have significantly contributed to a lower literacy rate,’ Bushra says.

To address this issue, Bushra also initiated ‘Kitab Dost’ (friends of books) in 2019. It is a reading initiative that aims to improve reading skills and learning outcomes among students in government primary and low-cost private schools. Kitab Dost inculcates a habit of reading among these children, with support from a roster of youth, teachers, female scholars and Australia Awards alumni. The team collaborates to read stories to the children once a week for two hours. Within just a few years, Kitab Dost has received an overwhelming response from stakeholders, with the team who deliver the story-reading sessions expanding to include students from local universities, retired officials, authors and social workers. As a result, in 2020 the Minister of Education directed that the scope of the initiative be extended from 20 schools to more than 1000 primary schools.

Bushra Rahim at Regional Alumni Workshop

Bushra attending the 2022 Regional Alumni Workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The success of the Kitab Dost initiative birthed the concept of the Kitab Caravan: a mobile library in the form of a colourful rickshaw with an array of storybooks that travels to rural areas and government schools, distributing books to local children to instil a habit of reading and encourage the culture of storytelling.

‘We received a lot of national and international coverage for [the Kitab Caravan],’ Bushra says. ‘Members from other provinces have also reached out to us, eager to adapt this idea within their own communities.’

Currently, Bushra is the Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Director for Home and Tribal Affairs. She has published various research papers on school autonomy, student retention, learning outcomes, economics of education and female entrepreneurship. Bushra is in regular contact and collaboration with her supervisors back at the University of New England, who provide her with resources and linkages to help her in her organisation and work.

‘My time spent in Australia was the stepping stone not only towards my career growth but also towards the development of my personality. The confidence, self-esteem and assertiveness I have gained is immeasurable and has allowed me to make friends, develop linkages and expand my professional portfolio,’ Bushra says. ‘I urge everyone to follow their dreams and apply for this unique experience to completely transform their lives for the better.’