By Muhammad Aqeel Awan and Muhammad Fiaz Virk, researchers with ASER Pakistan, at Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA).
“I study in class seven … Mathematics is my favorite subject.”
We were not expecting to hear these words when we stepped out to explore the life of Jhuggi (shanty town) dwellers living beneath a flyover in Karachi, Pakistan. They were uttered by Dia*, a young girl, full of confidence. Yet, despite feeling compassion and guilt when we visited the Jhuggi, after meeting the young girl, our privilege allowed us to return to our comfortable lives, while Dia stayed there. Such are the socio-spatial structures that command our lives.
Dia’s Jhuggi is one of the many that exist under the ‘roof’ of the flyover, right next to a dirty water stream. The living conditions are extremely unhealthy, unhygienic and in cruel violation of fundamental human rights, particularly people’s right to the city. Despite such harsh conditions, Dia’s mother, Naari* is the reason why Dia is in school; the reason why Dia is the only girl in that town that is lucky enough to get an education.
The passion for education in Dia’s family came from her maternal grandfather. Naari’s father was keen on getting his daughter formal education. Unfortunately, he died when Naari was in class three and her education was discontinued. But Naari continues to pursue the dream of education, now through her daughter’s eyes. Dia’s teachers also say that she is a talented student who at times even outperforms her fellow students.
However, any mention of social structures remains incomplete without mentioning the leviathan of patriarchy, which Dia is not immune from. Neither Naari’s ex-husband nor her son support Dia’s educational endeavors. When Naari shared this unsurprising but unfortunate fact, her ever-smiling face and sparkling eyes were clearly making a strong effort to cover the pain.
Naari’s primary source of income is selling flower-bracelets on traffic signals. She hardly makes 250 to 300 rupees (USD 1.5-2.0~) a day. Some people driving in their cars give money without buying the bracelets. While charity marginally increases Naari’s daily income, at times, the flowers lose their freshness, resulting in the loss of her original investment nevertheless.
Meanwhile, the school charges a monthly fee of Rs. 1,500/- (USD 10~). The majority of the students in the school come from working class families and follow a particular minority religion. Their religion is helpful in this context as one of the organizations working in the area is devoted to the well-being of the followers of that religion. The organization covers the schooling expenses of the students. However, since Dia follows a different minority religion, she is devoid of even that privilege so her mother must pay the fee. The only concession that the school offers to them is letting Dia study even if her fees are delayed by multiple months. A school located next to squatter settlements in Pakistan faces enough resource constraints to not have the privilege to offer further concessions.
Naari’s income does not allow her to save 1,500 rupees a month; usually, it is some random member of the affluent class who provides the support that Naari needs.
Dia wants to become a teacher one day. But her passion for education is up against the mighty forces of economic, social, patriarchal, and religious dispossession. And that dispossession is so deep rooted that even educated passersby like us find it difficult to accept the internalized abjections. The question then is: how long can Naari continue to educate Dia? Will acquiring education change Naari’s, Dia’s and their next generation’s fate? Will Dia be able to secure a job that can pay enough for her to have a proper roof over her head, have access to clean drinking water, enjoy food security and have better health, hygiene, and sanitary conditions? We are all aware of the rare possibility of such a change, given the structural constraints.
Dia’s everyday efforts expose the exploitative structures that give birth to and sustain the existence of Jhuggis. Collective efforts are needed to change the system, to build a movement that would pressurize policy makers and the state to undo these unjust socio-spatial structures and give everyone the right to an education.
*Psuedonyms have been used to protect the privacy of the individuals.