Hamida Bibi, like many Pakistani women of her class and generation, did not spend a single day of her childhood at school. Poor and illiterate, she had few employment prospects when her husband died six years ago, leaving her to support two young daughters, which she did by working as a servant.
Her girls, to her delight, anticipate very different lives. Sidra wants to find work that will let her "travel the world." Sumaira plans to become a doctor. "It's been difficult for our mother but she's so happy we're studying," says the serious, bright-eyed girl, her head covered in a loosely draped yellow shawl.
Sidra and Sumaira are students at Sanjan Nagar, an English-language school run by a nonprofit organization in a dusty industrial suburb of Lahore. The school has 480 pupils between ages 3 and 18, all of whom come from impoverished families. While their parents are mostly unschooled low-wage earners, the girls here study a curriculum as advanced as any elite private school's – and their ambitions are correspondingly lofty. Indeed, every pupil in the 13-year-old school's first-ever final year is planning to apply to college.
The experience of students at Sanjan Nagar is rare, though. Pakistan's education system is in a dismal state, with state-funded schools practically nonexistent in many parts of the country.
Though subpar schooling exists in much of the world, the education crisis in Pakistan – a country at the front lines of the war on terror – has unusually grave ramifications. Without alternatives, many impoverished parents send their children to madrassahs, or religious schools, which often give free board and lodging. Many madrassahs teach orthodox Islam to the exclusion of all other subjects. The more militant among them are accused of recruiting volunteers for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
In July, Asif Ali Zardari, who was recently inaugurated as Pakistan's president, pledged that his government would close all madrassahs that did not subscribe to a national curriculum. The government would, he added, make education a top priority, "not just because it is right, but because it is in the long-term strategic interests of Pakistan and the world."
Largely due to the government's focus on defense, Pakistan spends less than 2 percent of its gross national product on education. This has led to a dire shortage of school buildings and teachers, who often earn less than the minimum wage of about $80 a month.
Some 6 million Pakistani children do not attend a single day of school; among those that do, there is a 35 percent dropout rate, according to Ahsan Iqbal, a former education minister.
"The major issue besides infrastructure is the content of education – the current curriculum is not preparing pupils for a life which will give them economic empowerment," says Mr. Iqbal
Until that happens, it seems likely that madrassahs will continue to flourish. Abdul Waheed, director of the Bright Educational Society, which runs a secular school in Karachi and a literacy program in more than 300 madrassahs, says at least 1.5 million Pakistani children attend madrassahs full time, and some 30 million part-time. "Most of these madrassahs don't teach any subject except religion," he says.
In 2002 the government launched the Madrasa Reforms Project, which was designed to establish better standards in religious schools and broaden their curricula. But there are reports the program has been abandoned after it reached only a fraction of madrassahs.
In the absence, so far, of effective government efforts to stem the influence of Islamic schools, nonprofit organizations that rely largely on donor funding find themselves playing a disproportionately large role in Pakistan's education system.
The biggest is The Citizen's Foundation (TCF), which teaches 65,000 pupils in an ever-extending network of schools; so far it has opened more than 500 across Pakistan. It hopes to expand to at least 1,000 schools in the near future.
Sanjan Nagar, like most nonprofit secular schools in Pakistan, is heavily oversubscribed. This academic year 380 children applied for 60 places, says principal Faiza Shahrukh, who adds that since she joined the school two years ago not a single child has dropped out.
"When I'm feeling depressed about Pakistan I think of the school and remember that it is possible to create change here in just a few years," says Nusrat Jamil, a social worker who volunteers at the school.
Schools like Sanjan Nagar and those run by TCF rely largely on public donations to fund their work – as well as the involvement of volunteer teachers and mentors to run them. They teach a broad, secular curriculum with an emphasis on academic success.
While Sanjan Nagar was established with a large endowment from a Pakistani philanthropist, TCF has a well-established network of supporting organizations around the world, such as The Citizen's Foundation USA, which decides how the funds it contributes to the schools in Pakistan are spent.
But while Sanjam Nagar undoubtedly offers an inspiring example in Pakistan's wretched education sector, nonprofits like this have only limited reach, as the students themselves are painfully aware.
Tahira, who goes by one name, has three sisters and two brothers who all attend government schools. "I'm the youngest but they don't really know anything so I help them with their homework," she says with some embarrassment. "I know I'm very lucky."