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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 July 2006, 07:48 GMT 08:48 UK
Beauty queen defies bimbo stereotype
By Chiade O'Shea

Hamassa Kohistani
Ms Kohistani was visibly moved by the meeting

With lustrous hair to her waist, immaculate make-up and perfect poise, Miss England 2005 has all the credentials of a beauty queen.

But ask her what she has hoped to achieve in her year wearing the crown and Hamassa Kohistani proves to be as well grounded as she is well groomed.

There are no vague aspirations for world peace here. Her aim has been to make a dent on child illiteracy in Pakistan, learn from her adopted charity there and set up her own NGO in her native Afghanistan.

"People from my background especially, we haven't had the opportunity to take education for granted," she says, referring to her family's exile from Afghanistan.

Had they stayed there, the country's oppressive Taleban regime would have prevented Hamassa from going to school. Now, she is multi-lingual and studying four, rather than the standard three, A-levels.


Surrounded by children in a small Rawalpindi school who also came very close to missing out on education altogether, Hamassa is suddenly overwhelmed.

Waleed Akhtar
I want to have the same sort of life that other children have
Waleed Akhtar

She is visiting a school run by the Zindagi Trust, a charity whose name simply means "Life". Its workers are based in the poorest areas of Pakistan, trying to give child labourers a basic education.

Touched by their homemade gifts, she is aware that the young pupils will leave the classrooms in a few hours to return to low paid and often dangerous jobs.

"It's hard to see them go back to the streets and work when they're so happy in a classroom," she says, wiping tears from her eyes.

Until the Zindagi Trust approached their parents, none of these children could read or write.

Now, they divide their time between work and study.

Eventually, they will be encouraged to leave work altogether to enter a full-time vocational skills programme that will ultimately leave them qualified for safer and more lucrative employment as adults.

The struggle to get children out of labour usually stumbles on the problem of the family's lost income. To counter this, the Zindagi Trust pays each pupil 20 rupees (30 cents, 20p) a day to study.

The modest income - enough to buy seven chapattis or half a kilo of sugar - nonetheless exceeds what many of these ruthlessly exploited children earn.

But, for the moment, the trust is working hard to get boys like 13 year-old Waleed Akhtar out of his furniture workshop for the few hours a day it will take to teach him basic literacy.

Hamassa Kohistani
Ms Kohistani wants similar opportunities in Afghanistan

"I want to have the same sort of life that other children have," said Waleed.

"I came here because these people offered me to be able to study as well as working," he added.

Waleed can't afford to stop work entirely. He spends as much as eight hours a day, before and after school, making cushions and padding for sofas.

But, the extra 20 rupees he brings home convinced his impoverished family that school was a worthwhile investment.

'Lucky ones'

For Waleed, the pay off is his academic progress. "Now I can read and write English better than Urdu," he boasts with a smile.

Children at Zindagi Trust school
Children at the Zindagi Trust school are the lucky ones

Pakistan has 10.5 million working children like Waleed. The vast majority of them lack even the literacy to write a basic sentence.

Without the education needed to progress to better-paid employment, these youngsters own children will probably never go to school.

Hamassa is also keen to get children in Afghanistan out of the same vicious cycle.

"At least these children have the Zindagi Trust behind them... I know that these are the lucky ones, but what about in Afghanistan where they have nothing?"

Her year as Miss England is now over, but she wants to carry on with her work.

But when conditions are safer, the teenager has resolved to travel to Afghanistan to start her charity. In the meantime, she intends to learn as much as possible about running this kind of organisation.

While she works on her own skills as a fundraiser and campaigner, Hamassa hopes to change people's perceptions of her as a beauty queen.

"It's not just that I appreciate education as an Afghan woman, it's also about being a model and having an education," she said.

"People stereotype beauty queens and models so much and think, oh, you know, she's a bimbo," adds Hamassa.

But in case there's any doubt on the matter, it's a point she can argue in six languages.

History made by UK Muslim model
10 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific

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