Muallim Radio Program
By Rebecca Lee
Children in Pakistan tune in and learn
Picture a group of young children hunkered down around a radio listening to their favorite program. The scene could be reminiscent of your parents or grandparents when they were children. Radios might seem like an outdated technology in today’s digital age. Yet while children in the United States are glued to their computers, tablets, and smartphones, children in Pakistan are “going to school” through the radio.
Radio as a lifeline to learning
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, community leaders in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in northern Pakistan convened virtually with educators and Central Asia Institute’s in-country partners to explore ways to keep children learning while schools were closed.
The group was particularly focused on preventing girls from entering the child labor force. The world has watched this scenario play out repeatedly in times of natural disasters and other pandemics like Ebola: Schools close and girls are put to work, only to be denied the right to return when schools re-open.
Unless the leaders in GB made it a priority for girls to continue their studies during lockdown, the region was at risk of reversing decades of gains made for girls’ education. Some sort of distance learning was needed to bridge the learning gap until schools reopened.
Many households in this remote area of Pakistan have no internet access, and 43% of the population lives below the poverty line. More than half of children do not go to school. Many homes are without electricity, and most families have no computer, smartphone, or even a television. That means the Zoom classes that were ubiquitous in the United States during lockdown were not an option in remote Pakistan.
In the spring of 2020, the consortium of education and civil service organizations in GB took action. With the support of Central Asia Institute, they launched a pilot educational radio program on Radio Pakistan. Tuning in to the program required two inexpensive and readily available items: a radio and batteries.
The purpose of the pilot program was to keep students—especially girls—learning despite being stuck at home due to the pandemic. The disruption in young lives when a school closes for any reason cannot be overstated. The longer a student is out of school, the less likely they will return. This is especially true for girls. The pilot program targeted 2,300 children living in remote communities who normally attend community-based schools due to the lack of formal, government schools in their area.
Muallim Radio quickly expands its reach
The radio program was called Muallim, the Urdu word for teacher. Initially, the curriculum was designed for students in grades 1-3. But given the program’s success, it was soon broadened to cover grades 4-5 as well. The content focused on basic subjects, including Urdu, English, math, and general knowledge, with a special focus on health and hygiene. Lessons were presented in an easy-to-understand style by qualified and trained teachers. Stories, poems, and games kept the content entertaining and engaging. Children provided voiceovers for recurring characters, which added playful and helpful commentary. The organizers realized that Muallim Radio had caught on when they heard stories of parents bringing their broken radios to repair shops.
As word of the program spread, families outside of the pilot area were eager for their children to participate. Thanks to the generous support of CAI donors, Muallim was able to expand its broadcasting to reach students throughout GB province. Volunteer “literacy mobilizers” went into the communities to encourage families to tune in to the program. By the summer of 2020, Muallim was reaching an estimated audience of 200,000 youngsters—nearly 100 times the number of children in the pilot.
Listeners were not limited to students whose classes had been interrupted by COVID. Significant numbers of children and parents who never had access to education were able to tune in and learn as well. For the first time in their lives, these children and adults were receiving a basic education.
Parents could supervise their children’s studies while doing their chores—picking up basic math, language skills, and better health and hygiene practices.
Families with internet access and an electronic device were able to live-stream Muallim programming on the Facebook pages of Radio Pakistan’s local FM channels. Live streaming via the internet made the programming accessible to thousands more children living outside of GB. Families could download recordings of the program from Facebook and YouTube and listen or watch on their own schedule.
The (COVID-19) crisis motivated CAI, its partners, and the communities we serve to innovate and, as a result, the dark cloud of the pandemic may just have a silver lining.
— Alice Thomas,
Executive Director, Central Asia Institute
Muallim Radio reaches millions of children and adults
Before the pandemic, 22.8 million children in Pakistan were out of school, making Pakistan the country with the second-highest number of out-of-school children in the world. Girls, for whom access to education is particularly challenging, make up the majority of Pakistan’s out-of-school children. While it is a priority of the Pakistani government to provide more children with access to education, meeting the educational needs of millions of people has been an enormous challenge.
Therefore, when word of Muallim’s success reached the national level, the Ministry of Education saw the opportunity and began broadcasting Muallim programming in every province in Pakistan, a country of roughly 200 million people.
The reach and impact of Muallim Radio is nothing short of extraordinary. Even once schools started to re-open after the initial COVID-related shutdown, Muallim Radio continued to broadcast relevant, engaging content. More recently, when schools were closed down again due to the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant and the resurgence of COVID, the continuation of the program has allowed students and their parents to continue to tune in. Beyond reaching students who were at home due to the pandemic, Muallim Radio has opened the door to education for millions of children and adults who had been waiting in the wings for a chance to learn. In the midst of a crisis that demanded creative solutions, a proven, accessible, and affordable tool of communication—the radio—became the innovation that kept students learning.
Thanks to the support of donors like you, CAI has been able to support Muallim Radio to help bring education to millions of Pakistani children and adults who continue to benefit from its educational programming. Kudos to our partners overseas; to the teachers, civil service workers, and education leaders in Pakistan; and to you for stepping up during a crisis and keeping education alive.