by Barbara Castleton
Inspiration invariably arises in strange or unexpected places; and so it was for Aamna Khokhar, the founder and working engine behind Schools4Change. Schools4Change, which has taken off under the auspices of Khokhar’s project from Landmark’s Self-Expression and Leadership Program, was formed to build schools for disadvantaged girls in the Kashmir region of Pakistan. This is an area where many girls are sequestered and, in some cases, neglected, or abused physically and sexually.
The kernel of an idea began to form three years ago, when, on a trip back to Pakistan after many years absence, Aamna noticed the dearth of girls on the streets, in the shops, and on the walkways of the city. It was as though the girls had disappeared.
A few casual questions revealed that more and more girls were being kept at home. Their public lives were chipped away as a fundamentalist perspective granted males increased power over the females in their families and town. Aamna, living and working in a London where feminism is queen, realized that women in Pakistan needed greater opportunities, and how “women’s liberation really matters.”
It was not long before the issue of women’s self-determinism struck even closer to home. Aamna has always considered her family quite liberated, and her own personal freedoms have never been curtailed or at issue. So, a short, telling exchange within the family surprised her. A young, married female relative, visiting London for the first time, was invited to go along on a family excursion to see the sights.
As the group was getting ready to leave, the young woman hesitated. Aamna’s Aunty suggested, “Why don’t you go out and treat yourself and have some fun?” The visitor demurred, saying, “I’ll go when he takes me,” meaning when her husband was around to do the honors. Aamna was shocked that so simple a decision was to be given over to the husband.
Coming from England’s world of business, learning, and innovation, Aamna was used to women who defined themselves by their accomplishments, degrees, charity work, talents, and goals. However, for many young teen and twenty-year old females in Pakistan, she found, the only benchmark for a woman’s success was whether she managed to marry someone who could get her to England. That single feat would determine her personal success. It was measure completely at odds with Aamna’s philosophy and experience.
All these experiences wove around one another in her mind. The world of young women needed to expand. “I decided to open a school for girls, a school where girls would learn things from outside their world. That is why we planned the curriculum as an International Baccalaureate,” she stated. “We don’t want to simply adjust the Pakistani model. We want a program where the girls can achieve something worth having.”
The International Baccalaureate model is one respected the world over and one that should help graduates to be accepted into a variety of universities, in England, the US, and throughout the world.
Recruiting the girls she wants will take hands on, in person communication with guardians and parents because she wants students for whom this will be, literally, a chance in a million. But, rather than tilt at windmills, Aamna will start her search in Mirpur and Jhelem, areas that are slightly more progressive, but where there are thousands of dispossessed or orphaned children due to the devastation caused by annual flooding.
“We will be a live-in school, so the parents and guardians will have to trust us,” she says. Her plan is to start with 100 students and then increase to a maximum of 1000 as funds grow and building progresses.
As the parents will need to trust the school, so will Aamna and her enthusiastic team of trustees and members will have to trust their partners in the region, partners that already have a great deal of experience negotiating and getting things done. One of those is the Kashmir International Relief Fund, a group that has been doing medical projects in the area for years.
In addition, Schools4change has been given 11 acres of well-placed land, enough for school buildings, dorm buildings, employee housing, and facilities. The initial structures will cost about £20,000 or $32,000, of which the organization’s determined fund raising has earned about 25%. This has been accomplished through a series of events, including a Summer Faire, Comedy Night, Murder Mystery evenings, and even Sky Dives. All of this was accomplished with a fundraising handicap, Schools4change hadn’t yet been granted charity status.
That was a major obstacle, and due to the rigorous nature of the application, took some time to accomplish. Just this past summer, all the requirements were met, the signatures gathered, and the documents filed. When the papers came through, Aamna and her collaborators celebrated and started serious planning for more events, for the school, and for a limitless future for Schools4change.