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Representational image. PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI: Rabia Azfar Nizami is about to join the Sindh Assembly on one of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) three reserved seats for women.

After working in the tech industry for over two decades, she entered politics under the PTI’s fold and started working on education reform in Karachi as part of the Insaf Community Welfare Society (ICWS).

In 2016, she was part of a social forum in Karachi where people would gather and invite legislators to come speak on issues confronting their areas.

Samar Ali Khan, a member of the Sindh Assembly elected from what was then Karachi’s NA-250 seat (now-247), invited Nizami to get involved in the party’s efforts to improve local education.

She began working on raising funds from donors, rehabilitating schools and adopted two schools to monitor, Qamar ul Islam School in Punjab Colony that accommodates 804 students and Pak Jamhooria in Defence Market which is attended by more than 500 children. She was unaware what she would be entering into.

A school consolidation policy was approved by the Sindh Government in 2012. Under the reform, schools in close proximity to each other were merged for efficiency and utilisation of resources.

Several schools operate in one building and often under one principal. Often, girls attend morning sessions and boys come in the afternoon.

In Nizami’s opinion, the policy had detrimental effects on many government schools, boys education in particular. She said the afternoon shifts are understaffed, have fewer resources and under-trained teachers.

At one school she saw first grade students who could not write their own names or hold a pencil. She had 20 boys picked up and moved from the afternoon to the morning shift into a remedial set-up where she saw them brought to a point where they could write full sentences.

She says the children are performing as if they have learning disabilities but their underperformance is because of the environment they are in.

“If we do not bring reforms into government schools, there will be a good two or three generations of boys who will become labourers because of poor education standards or turn to crime because of sheer frustration,” she says.

In Karachi’s district South, there are 52 schools hosted in 17 government buildings, Nizami was part of an education team that worked on rehabilitating 30 schools. This included repairing infrastructure, finding and training teachers and getting other necessary resources such as drinking water and furniture.

Most of the funding came from donors. Nizami says utilising social media, especially the messaging application WhatsApp, was a large part of generating this support. She and her team share posts detailing what a school’s needs are and the response is always generous.

“People see our posts and say ‘just tell us the account number and we will transfer money to you’. She cites a few examples, Indus Pencils contributed a year’s supply of pencils, an anonymous donor gave Rs0.1 million for uniforms and shoes for 100 kids and another funded 60 uniforms.

The PTI occupies the contradictory position of being both a party that many women support and one that is not seen as supportive of women. An oft-cited example of the latter is the PTI legislator’s opposition to the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act 2016.

When Imran Khan was approached to introduce similar legislation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, he instead deferred it to the Council of Islamic Ideology that condemned it.

The new MPA feels differently. “Women are the strength of the PTI,” says Nizami. She has seen many middle class professional women and housewives involved in the party.

She says 65 women have signed up for the education committee from NA-247 and the constituency had 2,000 polling agents, half of which were women and the majority were volunteers and residents of the up-scale Defence area.

Speaking on her entry into politics, she says she would like to contribute as much as she can. “Every step I take becomes painful, the work is difficult and often you feel helpless. I truly feel until you are in the government, you don’t have the power to do anything.”

As for her joining the PTI specifically, she says she was not simply drawn in by Imran Khan’s charisma. “On a larger scale, my personal objectives are aligned with the ways the party wants to transform the country and bring transparency into education. I’ve seen them delivering in Khyber Pakthunkhwa.”

She supports the PTI because of what she has seen of the party structure. “I feel people are very demanding in the PTI, the workers are very strong.” She appreciates that members at middle and lower levels voice their grievances and they are heard.

After the Sindh Assembly takes oath on August 13, the party will assign her an area to work on. For now, she is familiar with the Sindh government and hopes to continue working on education.

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