Tented schools a reality for 800,000 quake-affected children

Nasrat Kazmi, a teacher at the Sherwan government primary school outside Muzaffarabad, teaches her class outside - two years after a devastating earthquake destroyed their school.
At least 17,000 students and 900 teachers died in the 8 October 2005 - tha
(David Swanson/IRIN)

Working in quake-affected northern Pakistan, Nasrat Kazmi knows all too well the difficulties of teaching children in a tent.

“It’s too hot in summer and too cold in winter,” the 35-year-old primary school teacher said outside the Sherwan government primary school, perched on a knoll overlooking the majestic mountains of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

“It’s just not suitable for education purposes,” Nasrat complained. She was just a stone’s throw from where the original school once stood, and only 10km from the provincial capital, Muzaffarabad.

But two years after a 7.6 magnitude quake levelled her school - a disaster that killed more than 75,000 and rendered over three million homeless - that is a reality she, along with her students, has no choice but to bear.

On 8 October 2005 at least 17,000 students and 900 teachers were killed in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and the country’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), according to the UN.

''Most students in the area are still going to school in tents. That’s a reality.''

Eight thousand schools out of a total of 11,534 primary and secondary schools in the mountainous region, roughly the size of Belgium, were destroyed, according to government estimates, while nearly one million children - 450,000 of primary school age - needed school support.

The region’s education infrastructure will take years to fully recover, specialists say, despite strong efforts by the government, as well as the international community, in getting thousands of children back into the classroom as quickly as possible.

Tented school reality

“Most students in the area are still going to school in tents. That’s a reality,” George Cooke, head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Muzaffarabad, told IRIN, estimating that two years on upwards of 800,000 primary and middle grade students were still attending classes under tents across the quake-affected area.

UNICEF, a key supporter of the government’s efforts, has worked to find safe, alternative shelters with adequate facilities and services to allow thousands of children to return to the classroom.

Over the past two years, it has been supporting the enrolment in government primary schools of over 400,000 children in six-quake affected districts in the area, including over 21,000 children - mostly girls - who had never attended school before.


Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Throughout much of quake-affected northern Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of children are still attending school under tents

As part of that effort, the agency has already provided close to 6,000 tents in the area, as well as 67 prefabricated shelters - the preferred choice during this transitional period before the schools can be reconstructed.

“Tents are temporary. After a year or so with this kind of harsh weather, you have to replace the tents,” Cooke said.

Added to that is the safety issue when it comes to heating the schools in the winter, he added. “The goal is to rebuild, but that will take time,” he said.

Most schools destroyed by the quake were provided with one tent, while in other cases a larger tent might be subdivided into different sections to accommodate larger schools. Two or three tents might be used to accommodate the largest schools.

“If you are going to provide a tented school structure, you have to consider what was there before,” Cook said. “It’s not one size fits all.”

''If you are going to provide a tented school structure, you have to consider what was there before. It’s not one size fits all.''

Damaged school buildings still in use

As for those schools that were not destroyed, but were damaged by the quake, it is not difficult to find schools that continue to open their doors each and every day to children hungry to learn - despite the obvious, but varying, risk factors involved.

“I don’t feel safe in here,” said Nasreen Akhter, a teacher at the Chitti Mori government primary school up the road, who each day teaches a mixed class of boys and girls in the simple, but clearly damaged, brick structure built on a hillside.

“What else can we do,” she shrugged, looking at the cracks that crisscross the walls across from her.

Other challenges

Apart from the reconstruction of school buildings, which could take years to complete, there is an acute lack of administrative capacity to fully keep track of the number of students enrolled, of teachers and the location and conditions of schools.

“People need to plan appropriately and without an effective mechanism in place, that’s impossible,” Cooke said.

In Pakistani-administered Kashmir especially, support was needed to rehabilitate institutions and restore administrative services in education, where many key staff were killed. Capacity building is now proving to be a major part of UNICEF’s efforts on the ground.


Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
At least 17,000 students and 900 teachers died in the October 2005 quake

Another challenge is a continuing dearth of qualified local teachers in the area.

“If 900 teachers died, that means we have to replace them with 900 teachers or more,” the UNICEF official continued. “But you cannot do that without ensuring that people are properly trained, as well as culturally sensitive to the situation.”

As part of that challenge, UNICEF has made training a key component of its activities, including the training of trainers in a variety of subjects such as mathematics, English, literature and history.

Additionally, specialised teacher training to handle traumatised children in difficult situations has proved to be an important aspect of the agency’s education recovery plan.

According to UNICEF, over 14,500 teachers from the quake-affected communities of Pakistani-administered Kashmir and NWFP have already been trained.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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