Teacher who educated Afghan refugee girls in Pakistan nominated for $1m global award

MUMBAI: A woman who has dedicated her life to educating Afghan refugee girls in Pakistan, challenging cultural sexism by setting up classes in a makeshift tent, has been shortlisted for a $1 million Global Teacher Prize given annually by the Varkey Foundation.

Aqeela Asifi, 49, left Kabul with her family in 1992, and ended up living in the remote refugee settlement of Kot Chandna in the Punjab region of Pakistan, where most girls were excluded from the classroom.

Asifi set up a school in a borrowed tent and worked hard to overcome resistance and negative attitudes. Twenty families agreed to their daughters being educated and Asifi initially focused on teaching non-controversial subjects such as personal hygiene, home management skills and religious education.

After gaining the trust of the community, Asifi was able to introduce literacy, Dari language, mathematics, geography and history. There was no money for resources like blackboards so Asifi stitched pieces of cloth with handwritten text to the tent walls and wrote books by hand at night. Her students traced their first words in dust on the floor.

Today, there are nine schools in the camp with many female teachers and over 1,500 students including 900 girls. With education, early and forced marriages in the community have declined.

Asifi’s school has produced over 1,000 graduates (mainly Afghan refugee girls, but also local Pakistani children). Some have become doctors, engineers, government officials and teachers in Afghanistan.

Asifi was presented with the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award in 2015.

Further, the founder of a non-profit in Mumbai that educates sex workers’ daughters is also among those shortlisted for the $1 million global award for teaching that she hopes will help change attitudes toward these marginalised people.

Robin Chaurasiya, co-founder of Kranti, which means revolution in Hindi, has been nominated for the Global Teacher Prize given annually by the Varkey Foundation.

The shortlist of 10 also includes teachers from the United States, Britain, Finland, Australia, Kenya, Japan, the Palestinian Territories and Pakistan. The winner will be announced in March.

Chaurasiya, 30, was born in Los Angeles and served with the US Air Force for several years. She has a master’s degree in gender studies and volunteered with an anti-trafficking NGO in Uganda before coming to Mumbai. She set up Kranti in 2011.

The Kranti School is for daughters of sex workers from Mumbai’s red-light district of Kamathipura and for victims of human trafficking, between the ages of 12 and 20. Its curriculum includes lessons in English, computers, dance therapy, meditation, photography, theatre and travel.

The “krantikaris” or revolutionaries are encouraged to become teachers and community leaders.

“It is my hope that being on this shortlist will help change people’s attitudes and mindsets about sex workers and their children, and what they can and cannot do,” Chaurasiya said in remarks on the Foundation website.

Mumbai, India’s financial hub, is also one of the biggest destinations for trafficked women and children. Most of them are brought from other states and from neighbouring countries including Nepal and Bangladesh, under the guise of securing a well-paid job in a home or shop.

Instead, many are trafficked into sex work fronted by salons and massage parlours, or forced into manual labour. The city’s commercial sex workers face stigma and are at greater risk of violence, as the industry has been forced underground after repeated police crackdowns, activists say.

Describing Chaurasiya as “giving India’s forgotten victims a voice,” the Global Teacher Prize calls the Kranti School “a remarkable force for change” for people who are otherwise on the outer margins of society.

“People have asked me what I’d do with the money if I win – I’d probably just split it with the other nine nominees because they’re all doing such amazing work,” Chaurasiya said.