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Shehzad Roy of Pakistan: Education activist extraordinaire

Those who dream of making ours a kinder world for children are my heroes. They who notice and act for mitigation of the pain of the little beings of a society are the ones who keep my faith in the goodness of humanity alive even when darkness embraces everything in its fatal nonchalance. My deep respect, my huge gratitude to all my wonder women, my supermen who do beautiful work to turn the ugliness of the world into something glorious for our children, our underprivileged, our broken, our invisible, our forgotten.

Shehzad Roy of Pakistan is one of them.

A popular and loved singer using his fame to bring attention to issues of grave importance, Roy is one of those rare few who empower their art to notice, work for, and change the bleak realities of everyday life. In 2003, Roy, then 26, created the Zindagi Trust. His focus was the reformation of the already existing entities that instead of doing good were unleashing unquantifiable harm. Zindagi is life in Urdu. Roy’s Zindagi Trust pledges to infuse new life into a system of education that is for many yet benefit very few: government-run schools.

Zindagi’s mission statement is simple: “Our work in School Reform transformed two government schools in Karachi [SMB Fatima Jinnah Government Girls School and Khatoon-e-Pakistan Government Girls School] into model institutions through interventions in infrastructure upgrades, governance, administration, teacher professional development, academic innovation and tracking and a rich menu of co-curricular and extracurricular activities.”

Presently serving as the UNODC ambassador, Roy was Pakistan’s representative at the 2018 UN convention in Vienna. Roy was awarded Tamgha-e-Imtiaz in 2005 for his sociopolitical music and contribution to the sector of education reform; Sitara-e-Eisaar for contribution to the relief efforts for 2005 Kashmir earthquake; and Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 2018 for work “in education reform through advocacy and integration of Child Protection [against sexual abuse] into the curricular of Sindh and Balochistan.”

Roy’s 2013 TV show Chal Parha highlighted along with other education-related issues the awful practice of corporal punishment in schools. His work was noticed; Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a law, criminalising corporal punishment. In February 2021, the ICT Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill was passed. The Islamabad High Court, acting on a 2019 petition by Roy, repealed the colonial-era section 89 that allows beating of under-12 children “in good faith.”

Articulate and unpretentious, Roy is a role model for those who through vision, dedication, and hard work make a positive change. Roy’s education reforms continue, his principled stances on myriad issues appear on Twitter, and his music remains meaningful.

I asked Shehzad Roy a few questions:

What was your biggest motivation behind the creation of the Zindagi Trust?

Shehzad Roy: I used to help different organisations including the Edhi Foundation. My fame as an artist helped. I could do concerts and raise awareness to help them in their fundraising work. That made me think of starting my own organisation. Education and health were subjects very close to my heart. Substandard education and substandard healthcare for the underprivileged everywhere. I wanted things to change, I wanted my work to have an impact.

Zindagi Trust’s credo “Our journey of reforming government schools to transform children's lives.” Elaborate.

Our journey of reforming government schools is an ongoing process. When we started, we had no idea what lay ahead. In 2003, not many people understood the idea of helping government schools. The system was badly damaged. To make new schools, new buildings, was that the solution? On doing research, I discovered that many schools were lying vacant. Many teachers who were not working. Taxpayers’ money was not being properly utilised.

Globally, education and healthcare are government’s responsibility. We decided to help. We chose one government school, Fatima Jinnah, and we adopted it.

Our battles were plenty. When you are turning around a government school, it is like you are working on a mini-Pakistan. Whatever issue you can imagine in Pakistan, any problem that you can think of, we have faced it.

When our reforms became successful, and the transformation started to show results, our students beat football teams from Karachi American School and Karachi Grammar School [city’s elite institutions]. In 2014, our school held a chess championship. The list of the achievements of our students is long, and a source of constant pride for us.

Looking at our school, people began to understand that government schools were fixable. The concepts of adopt-a-school and public-private partnership were strengthened. More organisations became involved in the education sector. Our work encouraged them to believe in the potential of government schools.

What are the major obstacles in your reform work for state-run schools?

When you go to fix a place that is destroyed, you find out that so much is wrong. Once the process of restoration starts, results appear if you have the courage of conviction. And you fear nothing. If you scare easily, you cannot do even a day of work to fix a government school. Fixing a government school is not just adding a fan or installing a water dispenser. The real issues that include curriculum, textbooks, absenteeism of teachers, teacher training impact education nationwide. Too many obstacles, land mafias being a major one. Threats were issued from the then major political force of Karachi. Government teachers were against us. Their issue was why someone from the private sector was entering their domain.

We continued our work. We never took money from any government. Many issues, but we prevailed.

What are the key transformations in a school after the Zindagi trust takes it under its patronage?

The key transformations are administrative, academic, and policy changes.

On the administrative side we managed to get many things changed. I’ll tell you one story. On our first visit after we adopted Fatima Jinnah Government School, we entered class 1. It was one school. Classes 3 and 4 were other schools, and classes 5 and 6, different schools. Baffled, eight schools existed in one building on whose exterior there was only one name. The explanation was that different classrooms had been declared different schools. The eight schools had eight principals! How were we going to reform an eight-in-one school? That was our first realisation why civil society, in general, refrained from helping government schools. It was incomprehensible how eight schools were operational in one campus, and that too not on different timings but simultaneously.

Even the answer to the exact number of schools in Karachi was not simple. No one really knew. The most common answer: 3,000 schools. Those schools were being operated in 900 campuses. 3000 schools, 900 campuses, 3,000 principals.

We began to work on getting Fatima Jinnah to be declared one school. One campus, one principal. The senior most teacher would be made the principal. Working on those lines, we got a notification for what was called consolidation. The then government said that if they were to increase the number of campuses, people would demand to know what happened to the existing schools. It was a political issue for them. We suggested the usage of the word consolidation. In 2011, the consolidation policy finally emerged. Now Karachi has 900 campuses. If an individual, organisation, or NGO wish to adopt a school, they would take a consolidated school.

On the academic side, we were the first ones to implement Aahung’s sexual abuse prevention curriculum. Later, the curriculum was implemented all over Sindh, and now it is being replicated throughout Pakistan.

For teachers, the big step is that the Annual Confidential Report is being changed.

What to you is your trust’s most important achievement so far?

We have done many things but the most important one is that we have given government schools the reason to believe that rehabilitation is always a possibility. Two important policies came into existence because of our work. Corporal punishment of children has been prohibited nationwide. Saving children from sexual abuse was a subject that was considered very controversial, we have mainstreamed it.

Do you see any major effects of the pandemic on the work of the Zindagi Trust?

The pandemic brought to the fore many issues. We thought there would be dropouts. Issues of government schools have been immensely enhanced. Education of all students has been severely affected. I believe that we should treat children like children. We’ve begun to treat them like machines, expecting them to produce certain results. Students all over Pakistan have been in trauma, the effect of which would be there for quite a while.

Much achieved, much still to attain, what, as the founder of the Zindagi Trust, is your next goal?

Our biggest achievement is that we have managed to turn around government schools. We have also established a teachers’ training college. An entire cycle has been formed. We wish to replicate it across Pakistan. The model is ready, it is successful, and it is being replicated. Policies have been changed. What I wish right now is the acceleration of the entire process.