Khasar Sandag / World Bank

When books are deployed for peace building, healing and learning

By Baela Raza Jamil, CEO ITA and Founder Pakistan Learning Festival (PLF)

Today, saying ‘education is under threat’ is an understatement both nationally and globally.  Education is under severe threat due to the polycrisis of wars, migration, emergencies, climate change, poverty and myopia engulfing societies. It is under extreme threat, when the lives of millions, through blatant aggression, wars and chronic displacement, are snuffed out and there is cruel silence for peace and development. This year’s International Day of Education being celebrated today has been aptly termed ‘Learning for lasting peace’. Almost 2 billion people globally are suffering from conflicts and displacements (446 million children) and the war in Gaza continues unabated with children targeted viciously. In total, 250 million children remain out of school with their right to education violated. Pakistan has 26 million children out of school, up from 22.8 million in 2018, engulfed by multiple crises and runaway annual population growth rate of 2.55 percent.

The combination of many of these crises led the UN Secretary-General to convened the Transforming Education Summit in 2022, which resulted in six bold calls to action for all global and national leaders to act decisively on multiple fronts. One year later, calls to ensure that education and SDG 4 do not remain ‘off track’ were repeated at the UN SDGs Summit.

The genesis of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) or Centre for Education and Consciousness, in 2000 in Pakistan was in response to the severe crisis of learning and underperforming schools in a country with 11,000 years of rich layered heritage. It supports girls and boys in extremely disadvantaged conditions via participatory, evidence-based innovative engagement with schools, communities, students, teachers and parents.

Libraries for lively and meaningful learning were a core program for school improvement and community engagement. I helped launch the Learning Festival in 2010/11 amidst intense domestic violence, extremism and displacement to promote messages of creativity, peace and critical thinking. These learning festivals include multiple learning strands. ITA has enrichment programs including include summer schools, remedial accelerated and second chance teaching at the right level, lifeskills, digital safety, edtech and TVET for livelihoods supporting early years to secondary education and focused on the most vulnerable, especially girls. ITA has reached 17 million beneficiaries.

The 91st festival is now underway in Lahore. Previous celebrations have also covered festivals in Swat during the rehabilitation of the valley from entrenched extremism when schools became the recruiting grounds for suicide bombers, for example. Key messages of education for girls and peace building were promoted during the immersive sessions at the learning festivals with Malala’s Yousufzai’s book ‘I am Malala’ and film viewing by thousands. No one knows peacebuilding through education better than Malala herself a victim and the boldest survivor for girls’ education from Swat, championing the cause boldly and generously across the world. Festivals have also seen thousands of hankies made by school children across Pakistan and India held across the Wagah and Attari borders between the two countries for the Queens’ Baton Relay.

The three most recent learning festivals by ITA have witnessed book launches in collaboration with Room to Read, three publishers and multiple authors. Moving readings of the book ‘Sitti’s Bird – a Story of Gaza’ written by Malak Mattar also received overwhelming response in the Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore Pakistan Learning Festivals in the last three months.

Engagement with seven emergency and peacebuilding initiatives through education have nurtured resilience to adapt and adopt skills, values and attitudes in all solutions. South-South learning and outreach across South Asia, Africa and Latin America have helped blur borders through learning initiatives, such as the PAL Network and the South South Fellowship Program.

Expanding peace education to Afghanistan

Continuing this work, the year 2024 began for ITA with fulfilling a promise to the children in Afghanistan by sharing 28 beautifully illustrated, leveled and adapted books in Dari and Pashto through 30 incredible libraries on buses, vans and trucks. The books come from 10 countries, developed by Room to Read and adapted by ITA through technical assistance since 2020. There are 30 libraries run by Charmaghz (‘Four brains’), which is run by passionate, mission-driven and scarred Afghan youth since 2018, committed to securing a peaceful future for all children through the joy of reading, foundational learning and critical thinking – skills that only 7% of primary school age children in Afghanistan currently have.

Led by the visionary Freshta Karim, an internationally recognized and much-awarded advocate for education and children’s rights, libraries and books have become an agent for hope, peace and learning for a brighter future in Afghanistan. The books reached the libraries on January 13 and by January 18, thanks to technology, a two-day online training designed by Room to Read and delivered by ITA was completed for 8 librarian/facilitators in Afghanistan.

So far, in Pakistan, more than 1.6 million children have been reached through 600,000 books covering 43 titles and distributed in 110 districts, including 900 schools affected by floods, climate change, refugees, host communities. Our efforts are now extending to Afghanistan. When Room to Read partnered with ITA in April 2020, coinciding with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our targets were cautious and simple: to set up 20 libraries in government schools of two districts in Punjab, to train 200 personnel and adapt 25 books in Urdu. Today, there are 34 libraries, 4 languages of adaptation (Urdu, Sindhi, Pashto and Dari), and 1200 personnel trained.

ITA has been committed to peace building through education since 2000. Books and learning remain the most solid bridge for peace building on this International Day of Education 2024. We know it, we do it, and we support it boldly through internal and external border crossings, inclusively and with resilience.


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