More to Pakistan than cricket and terrorist threats

01/01/2016

by Raja Jawad

Irfan Shamoon’s father used to work as a sweeper, a career that is normally consigned to the poorest in minority castes. However, Irfan had higher hopes. Today he is an assistant manager at one of Pakistan’s largest engineering firms. “I’ve broken the shackles of poverty,” he says.

The story of social mobility is not told too often in Pakistan. It is not as newsworthy as the Pakistan cricket team or the efforts to address terrorist threats, but for thousands the ability to continue education and move out of a rigid class system gives hope and inspiration to many facing bleak and class-bound futures.

Irfan grew up in a country of nearly 200 million people. Within this diverse population are competing ethnicities, regional languages, class divisions, political struggles and sectarian strife of a very large nation.

Discrimination excludes the under-privileged from employment opportunities, which are already difficult to find and often require an education from which many, especially in the Punjab province, are excluded.

“I understood from the beginning that working hard was the only means for me to overcome poverty,” says Irfan.

“I studied electrical engineering at one of the most prestigious universities in the country and I’m now part of a large organisation. This scholarship has not benefitted just me, but has transformed the future of my family.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬”

Young people like Irfan are simply looking for a way out of predetermined poverty, and now through scholarships for secondary and higher education, this is possible.

Breaking social taboos

As terrorist threats dominate Pakistan’s headlines, the federally administered tribal areas (Fata) have been portrayed as a central battlefield in the ongoing domestic military operation against the Pakistani Taliban. Even before the arrival of the extremists, Fata was a conservative heartland where girls’ education was considered a social taboo. Now, these girls will join peers from other parts of Pakistan to continue their education, armed with the opportunity to take part in a cultural conversation arising from diversity in the classrooms to break down social barriers.

In recognition of the particular challenges for young people in remote and conflict prone areas of Pakistan, including interior Sindh, Fata and Baluchistan, the scholarship programme has been extended to these areas.

Pakistan has a different story to tell. It is not just a country of a successful cricket team and terrorist threats, it is a country that is supporting the upward mobility of its most marginalised population – the youth – to escape a life predestined by circumstances at birth.

The Punjab Educational Endowment Fund (PEEF) is making a transformative impact on the lives of the poor through the scholarships it awards. Over 100,000 scholarships have been awarded within the past six years, through a merit-based selection process, supported by the Government of Punjab and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).