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Gifted student gets a chance to stay in school

Thanks to an Oxfam-funded scholarship, Tooba Sharif (left) has enough money for transport and other expenses that allow her to continue school. Photo: Khaula Jamil/Oxfam

When a young girl’s family could not afford to continue her education, Oxfam’s partner in Pakistan found her a scholarship.

Shamshad Bibi always knew her youngest daughter, Tooba Sharif, was gifted. From the time she first enrolled in school, she aced every exam she ever took. “I never had to ask Tooba to finish her homework. She starts studying as soon as she comes home from school,” she says.

Thirteen-year-old Tooba* has an eager smile and big dark eyes that gleam brightly when she talks about school. “I love studying and always go through the whole textbook on my own,” she says. “Math is my favorite subject.”

But when Tooba graduated from grade 5, the family knew she would not be able to study further. The nearest middle school is in the town of Rohilanwali, about 18 miles from Ibrahimwala, where Tooba and her family live. Attending school in Rohilanwali meant spending 2,000 rupees (about $US 15) a month on transport.

Few girls go on to middle school outside Ibrahimwala. Most of the families here and in many other farming communities in South Punjab work as farm laborers for just a few wealthy landlords who own mango orchards. Tooba’s father earns the equivalent of $2-3 per day.

“We have six children to raise,” Tooba’s mother Shamshad Bibi explains. “There are no fees in government schools but parents still need to pay for notebooks, stationery, and uniforms. We could manage when Tooba walked to the nearby school, but couldn’t pay the rickshaw fare to Rohilanwali.”

Bibi never went to school herself and like most girls in the area, she was married before she was 15. She says she wanted all her children to complete their education and not marry young. But once a girl quits school, parents are under a lot of pressure to marry her off.  

Bibi’s eldest daughter is 14. She quit school after grade 5 and will be married in a few months. “All my girls are very bright. My eldest is perhaps even smarter than Tooba. But I couldn’t do anything to help her continue her education,” she says wistfully.

Scholarship opportunity

But Tooba was luckier. A few days after she passed her 5th grade exams, staff from Oxfam’s partner organization Human Development Foundation (HDF) came to her school and offered the students an opportunity to apply for a scholarship. Like most other children in the area, Tooba was not registered at birth and applying for the scholarship required identification documents.

“I can’t read or write, but the people from [HDF] helped me at each step and we were able to get Tooba’s identification documents made within a few days,” Bibi says.

Tooba performed well on the test and was among 70 girls selected for a scholarship under Oxfam’s Women Leaders of Tomorrow (WLT) project. The project supports the education and development of young girls as future leaders by providing scholarships and opportunities for developing leadership skills. Every month WLT provides scholarships worth 2,000 rupees (about US $14) to girls in grades 6 to 10, and about $28 for girls in grades 10 to 12 that go toward fees and school supplies.

Tooba recalls the day she was selected for the scholarship as one of the happiest in her life. “I was overjoyed and ran all the way home to tell my mom,” she says.

Today, Tooba is enrolled in the 6th grade in Rohilanwali. She happily wakes up at 5 a.m. for the one-hour rickshaw ride from her village to the school. The scholarship money goes toward the rickshaw fare, while her parents pay for school supplies.

Her mother has noticed a change in her demeanor. Once a shy girl, today Tooba has an air of confidence about her. “A mother knows her child, and I know she would sometimes feel ashamed of our poverty. Now that she is going to a big school in town through her own hard work, she is more confident and visibly happier,” she says.

*Tooba Sharif’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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