We first met Ratnu Kohli in 2019, as he worked in rice fields in Badin, Sindh with his children under the afternoon sun, busy sorting and packing the harvested paddy. Although Ratnu himself studied in school up to class three, none of his eight school-aged children were enrolled. He told us that education was important so his children would not get scammed when selling their crops. Hearing this, we excitedly pointed toward the gleaming, beautiful building of a low-cost private school, standing right across the fields: “Why not enroll your children in this school?” He looked at the school and said, “Children of landowners go to this school.” Ratnu’s concern that the social structures he experienced in his day-to-day life would play out within the school was not put to the test, but the persistence of this fear was a clear sign that the school had not been effective in laying it to rest.

In Pakistan, in addition to rural location, income, religion, caste, and land ownership, factors like gender, spoken language, and a community’s prior exposure to schooling, among others, all play a role in limiting a child’s access to schooling and learning. Countrywide, there is a huge shortfall in meeting the school enrolment needs of 20 million children.  Four out of 5 children who are not in schools are from rural areas, and of these, around 60 percent are girls. But being in school alone does not guarantee learning; around half the children who make it to grade 5 cannot read a story (in Pashto, Sindhi, or Urdu) or solve division questions. With multiple and diverse factors affecting a child’s access to schooling and learning, program and policy interventions that fail to meaningfully address the lived realities of the most-excluded children in Pakistan—and their families and communities—are likely to fall short.

As part of The Citizens Foundation (TCF), which operates the largest network of independently run, nonprofit schools in the world, I spent three years understanding the context of older out-of-school children (OOSC) in rural Sindh. To access and visit their communities and families, I relied on women who speak Sindhi fluently and are culturally responsive to the needs of the community. Working with other women helped in accessing all children in the community, especially girls, who are among the most excluded OOSC.

Read the full article about education in Pakistan by Hina Saleem at Brookings.