Mobile bus library wheels its way to rural Pakistani schools

By Natalie Lovenburg

October 5, 2017

A bus splashed with bright and bold colors of blue and green and carrying 550 storybooks forges its way through a bumpy, narrow passage to reach its final destination: a primary school in remote Pakistan.

The Mobile Bus Library is one of four buses navigating through several districts in Pakistan’s Islamabad and Sindh provinces, adding a new chapter of opportunity for students in hard-to-reach primary schools, where reading materials are scarce and libraries aren’t available.

Accessing quality reading materials plays an important role in students’ ability to learn to their fullest potential.

“Seeing, touching and reading the text in the books opens new avenues of comprehension and understanding, and ultimately improved learning outcomes,” says Shahida Maheen, who oversees the Mobile Bus Library initiative of the Pakistan Reading Project.

The Pakistan Reading Project is a national program aimed at improving the reading skills of 1.3 million children in grades one and two, nationwide, including more than 280,000 students in Sindh. The project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Under the International Rescue Committee’s purview, along with Creative Associates International, World Learning and the Institute for Rural Management, the Pakistan Reading Project is delivering high-quality pre-service teacher education, training and professional development with an explicit focus on teaching reading. The project aims to improve management throughout the education system by improving policy support and enhancing information, planning and monitoring systems.

With the goal of improving reading skills in the country, particularly in remote areas with limited access to books, the Mobile Bus Library is one of several activities implemented by the Pakistan Reading Project to promote a culture of reading.

Three days a week, the eye-catching bus arrives inside the school’s gates, parks adjacent to the building, and raises its side awning to reveal a display of storybooks. Students gather, crossed-legged on ornate rugs, bright-eyed and enthusiastic as the session begins.

Learning facilitators, trained by the Pakistan Reading Project, guide the young students through various reading activities and storytelling sessions.

The bus is equipped with an LED television and side speakers for an enhanced storytelling experience. After the interactive learning session, students can check out books for two days from the library.

After three to five days of storytelling sessions with the students at the school, the learning facilitator packs up the books, closes the bus awning and leaves 550 books with the school administrators to encourage the young readers to continue learning.

“The response to the Mobile Bus Library has been well-received and we are witnessing a meaningful impact on the community,” says Maheen.

The Pakistan Reading Project is committed to improving educational opportunities for boys as well as girls.

She adds that uneducated parents are engaging with their children through the storybooks in their home and as a result, learning to read themselves.

Ministry of Education officials, in collaboration with teachers and the Pakistan Reading Project, have selected the storybooks to fit the cultural context and reading skill level. These officials are optimistic about the Library’s positive contribution to schools and communities.

“I am excited to have the Mobile Bus Library in my schools,” says Tabassum Pathan, Taluka Education Officer, Directorate of Education, Tando Allah Yar district in Sindh province.

“I believe it will play an effective role in promoting a culture of reading,” adds Pathan, who oversees education initiatives in 200 schools in Sindh.

Cultivating a love of learning

Rukhsana Bibi is learning to write her name for the first time.

Bibi’s child participated the Mobile Bus Library summer camp at a primary school, and she participated in reading and writing activities, along with many other mothers in the community.

“Now I can use my signature, instead of using my thumbprint,” she proudly explains.

The Mobile Bus Library team works closely with mothers of the students through the summer camps to increase reading and writing skills and to inspire them to engage more with their children through reading at home.

“It’s exciting to learn at this age with your kids,” Bibi says.

To date, the Mobile Bus Library has engaged more than 650 teachers and 960 parents from Islamabad Capital Territory, and more than 1,135 teachers and 3,545 parents from Sindh province.

By fostering an excitement for reading, the USAID-funded Pakistan Reading Project is providing new growth opportunities for children and their parents, and generating community-based support for reading.

Filling the gender gap

In her role as Gender Advisor for the Pakistan Reading Project, Shaheen Ashraf Shah, Ph.D., focuses on ensuring that boys and girls have equitable access to literacy education.

In a patriarchal society like Pakistan, girls face socio-cultural barriers to access education. Early marriage, limited mobility, security concerns and social expectations contribute to high dropout rates in schools and poor access to education for girls.

More than 5 million children are out of school in Pakistan of which 60 percent are girls. However, the Pakistan Reading Project is committed to improving educational opportunities for boys as well as girls.

The project is incorporating a gender-sensitive approach in all project activities, ensuring that girls and boys have equal access to educational materials through initiatives like the Mobile Bus Library, leading the development of policies that support reading programs, building pre-service training curricula for the teaching of reading—a first for the country—and forging public-private partnerships for greatest impact and sustainability.

Despite the gender barriers, Pakistan has witnessed an increase in girls’ enrollment, especially in primary education. However, there are still fewer girls’ schools in Sindh, compared to boys’ schools.

Shaheen Ashraf Shah, Ph.D., Gender Advisor for the Pakistan Reading Project, recently completed a gender assessment of reading activities in the project’s schools in Sindh.

“The project’s gender ratio was skewed in the province,” explains Shah, who was raised in a rural area of Sindh and observed firsthand how women suffer because of gender bias.

Shah explains that initially, only 13 percent of the schools visited by the Mobile Bus Library were girl’s schools, and out of 8,378 students, only 28 percent of the girls benefited from the activities, compared to 72 percent boys.

Realizing the gender gap after Shah’s assessment, the Pakistan Reading Project team analyzed the situation, designed strategic interventions to ensure gender equity and charted out the next steps.

Despite the gender barriers, Pakistan has witnessed an increase in girls’ enrollment, especially in primary education.

More girls’ schools were added to the Mobile Bus Library’s route, and, for the first time ever, girls’ schools were invited by the neighboring boys’ schools to jointly participate in the reading activities. The interventions resulted in a significant increase in girls’ participation from 28 to 35 percent.

Shah says she is encouraged by the positive change she’s witnessing, “We know girls’ education is crucial in the fight against poverty. When you educate a girl, you educate an entire community–and ultimately transform it.”

Reporting by Noman Manzoor, Communications and Reporting Manager, USAID-funded Pakistan Reading Project

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