Junaid Khan for NPR
In Barakau, just 45 minutes by car from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, there is no proper government school. A Pakistani NGO, True Worth Foundation, has stepped in to fill the gap.
In Barakau, just 45 minutes by car from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, there is no proper government school. A Pakistani NGO, True Worth Foundation, has stepped in to fill the gap. Junaid Khan for NPR
Junaid Khan for NPR
But the modest school isn't able to meet the needs of all 2,000 of the village's children, many of whom have no choice but to get their education at a mosque school, or madrassa, or simply not go to school at all.
But the modest school isn't able to meet the needs of all 2,000 of the village's children, many of whom have no choice but to get their education at a mosque school, or madrassa, or simply not go to school at all. Junaid Khan for NPR
Junaid Khan for NPR
Frustrated with the government's failures to provide basic services, Zahra Fatemi created the True Worth Foundation using private donations. It runs the school and a skill center in Barakau.
Frustrated with the government's failures to provide basic services, Zahra Fatemi created the True Worth Foundation using private donations. It runs the school and a skill center in Barakau. Junaid Khan for NPR
Junaid Khan for NPR
In nearby Chattha Bakhtawar village, the True Worth Foundation has broken ground for a health clinic; it plans to build a school and skill center here, too.
In nearby Chattha Bakhtawar village, the True Worth Foundation has broken ground for a health clinic; it plans to build a school and skill center here, too. Junaid Khan for NPR
Much of the U.S. focus in Pakistan has been on the lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border where Taliban fighters are based. But Pakistan's problems extend much farther.
The nuclear-armed nation's government has failed to deliver services across much of the country. It has neglected education, and health care is a low priority, resulting in a segment of the population that is ill-trained, illiterate and angry.
The failures of the successive Pakistani governments can be seen in stark relief in Barakau, a village in the country's heartland.
Filling The Education Gap
On a recent day, 40 children sit at tables and scribble away on a test. This is the first time most have had a chance to learn how to read and write, but it's not thanks to the government. It's only because a Pakistani NGO has stepped in to provide education — and it's just a drop in the bucket.
In Barakau, just 45 minutes by car from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, there is no proper government school. Instead, the authorities rely on a system called informal education — one ill-trained, underpaid teacher working with no desks and limited books in a private house. Hardly a school, the setup is an inadequate way to educate Barakau's more than 2,000 children. The majority of the children have no choice but to get their education at a mosque school called a madrassa.
And if they weren't attending the madrassa, the children weren't going to school at all, says Zahra Fatemi, who, frustrated with the government's failures, set up the True Worth Foundation with private donations.
"[The children] were earning money. They were picking up garbage or they were working in the motor shops," she says.
Children living in these kinds of conditions, Fatemi says, become very vulnerable. Extremists, she says, can talk to them, brainwash them, because they don't have education.
If the extremists give the children a little money, the children say "yes" to everything, Fatemi explains. "And this is how terrorism and Islam fundamentalism increases in this country."
Until the school was set up a year ago, Sabah, a tiny, undernourished 14-year-old, had only learned to recite the Quran at the mosque. Now, she is also learning to read and write. She says she loves learning geography and science. She dreams of being a doctor.
Tackling Poverty, Social Taboos
But to get families to surrender their working children and allow them to be educated, Fatemi had to promise them more income. So she set up a skill center for women. It took a lot of persuasion to get the husbands to go along with it.
"It's male-dominated society. The males were very hesitant in sending their women to learn any kind of skill, which they think is wrong," Fatemi says.
It took a community meeting and reassurances that their wives would not be working in public.
So far, the center has focused on skills, such as sewing and tailoring, that the women can do at home.
Gulfam Majaz says even after her husband abandoned her and their children, her family refused to allow her to work. But because the new skill center was set up in Barakau and doesn't require that she leave the confines of the village, she finally had the confidence to put her foot down. Now, she believes she can earn enough money to educate her kids. She hopes her children will not be illiterate — unlike herself and more than 50 percent of Pakistanis.
Some Government Failures Harder To Fix
This kind of program is hardly new, and it's cheap. With no prior experience, Fatemi has made it work by sheer dint of determination. But it's something the government has failed to do. And Fatemi and her team have come up against repeated failures by the government, with one problem compounding another.
Vakaz Doger, who works with Fatemi on health issues, says water sanitation is the most critical issue in the area.
"There is no system for water purification," Doger says.
Sewage flows through open channels; children bathe in cattle troughs. Electricity is off more than it is on — all of this not far from Kahuta, where Pakistan spent billions to develop its nuclear weapons program.
Fatemi can't solve all of these problems. But she is expanding her programs to another nearby village, where Zarmina Janisar, 25, lives in a one-room mud-and-brick house with her husband and seven children. They are farm laborers.
Exhausted, Janisar holds a newborn who has brought more worries than joy. The mother doesn't know how she will feed or educate her children.
Fatemi says all the children have skin problems because it's dirty there, and just about every family in the village suffers from either hepatitis C or serious gastrointestinal problems.
"Even if we give them medicines, they go back and use dirty water to take showers, and the problem starts again. So it's a very vicious circle," Fatemi says. "So unless and until the water problem is solved, there's no way we can help them out."
Advocating Family Planning, Sensitively
Until Fatemi recently opened a clinic to service the area, there was no ready access to a doctor. Infant mortality in Pakistan is among the highest in the world: 10 times that of the U.S. and twice that of neighboring India.
With most families here living on a dollar a day, Fatemi and the new physician are tackling the delicate issue of contraception. The women were receptive. The big question was how to deal with the men.
"I thought, 'I know. I know it's dangerous. I know it's very difficult to talk to the men on this subject.' But I thought, 'Let me try it, let me see what the reaction [is],' " she recalls.
Their reaction was better than she dared hope. Many women are now coming to the clinic, along with their husbands. Fatemi and the doctor insist on that, because if the women were to do it on their own — and were caught — they'd risk being beaten, or worse.
Janisar, the 25-year-old mother of seven, says she would like help. Fatemi quietly talks to her husband, explaining that Islam is not against spacing children. He says OK.