Pakistani three-year-old Afshan’s trip to school is a high-wire balancing act, as she teeters across a metal girder spanning a trench of putrid floodwater, eyes fixed ahead.
After record monsoon rain flooded her classroom in the southeastern town of Chandan Mori, this is the route Afshan and her siblings traverse to a tent where her lessons take place.
“It’s a risky business to send children to school crossing that bridge,” Afshan’s father, Abdul Qadir, 23, said. “But we are compelled ... to secure their future, and our own.”
In Pakistan, where one-third of the country lives in hardship on less than US$4 a day, education is a rare ticket out of grinding poverty.
This summer, floods destroyed or damaged 27,000 schools and spurred a humanitarian disaster which saw 7,000 more commandeered as aid centers, the UN Children’s Fund said.
The education of 3.5 million children has been disrupted as a result, the charity said.
“Everything has gone away, we lost our studies,” said 10-year-old Kamran Babbar, who lives in a nearby tent city since his home and school were submerged.
Before the rains, which have been linked to climate change, Afshan followed her sisters to a lime green schoolhouse.
About two-and-a-half months after they finally abated, her school remains swamped by standing water.
More than 300 boys and girls have decamped to three tents where they sit on floors lined with plastic sheeting, answering teachers’ questions in chorus.
As midday approaches the tents are baked by the sun, and students fan themselves with notebooks — quenching their thirst with mouthfuls of cloudy, polluted floodwater.
Many cannot summon the strength to stand when called to answer questions by teacher Noor Ahmed.
“When they fall sick, and the majority of them do, it drastically affects attendance,” he said.
In this conservative corner of Pakistan, many girls are already held back from school, groomed for lives of domestic labor.
Those students that were enrolled had their prospects dampened by hunger and malnutrition even before the monsoon washed away vast tracts of crops.
Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic saw schools shut for 16 months.
The floods — which put one-third of Pakistan underwater and displaced 8 million — are yet one more hurdle many would not overcome.
“We are nurturing an ailing generation,” Ahmed said.
In the nearby town of Mounder, the monsoon storms tore the roof off the government school.
The walls are cracked and crumbling, and students now congregate outside, fearful of a collapse.
The boys learn under the shade of a tree in the courtyard, while the girls gather nearby in a donated tent.
“Such events will leave an everlasting traumatic impact on the girls,” teacher Rabia Iqbal said.
“If we want to make them mentally healthy, we will have to immediately move them from tents to proper classrooms,” she added.
The return to school is unlikely to be swift.
Analysis suggests the bill for the reconstruction of schools and recovery of the education system would be nearly US$1 billion — the total repair bill is close to US$40 billion — in a nation already mired in economic turmoil.
Undaunted by the difficulties ahead, the girls of Chandan Mori’s high school trudge every day to a temporary classroom 3km away.
“We will not be defeated by such circumstances,” 13-year-old Shaista Panwar said.
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