Page last updated at 09:30 GMT, Thursday, 15 October 2009 10:30 UK
Hungry to learn across the world

Head teacher Parveen Begum says she has had threatening letters

Around the world, millions of children have to go to great lengths to get a decent education. In the fifth dispatch in the BBC's Hunger to Learn series, Aleem Maqbool reports from Pakistan's Swat Valley, where girls are defying Taliban attempts to stop them going to school.

Earlier this year, Kanju Chowk Elementary School in Swat was targeted by Taliban militants simply because the teachers are women and the pupils are girls.

The head teacher, Parveen Begum, gives us a tour of what they left behind. She covers most of her face with a white shawl, and treads carefully over the debris in beaded leather slippers.

"This used to be the classroom for our very youngest pupils," she says, as we look into a room of mangled chairs and desks, littered with shredded exercise books.

Hunger to Learn looks at the lengths children go to get an education.
On Friday, we hear from pupils in L'Aquila, Italy, who are attending schools that have been rebuilt or repaired after the massive earthquake.

"All the girls cried when they saw what the militants had done to it."

Parveen says that when the Taliban took control of Swat, she started receiving threatening letters.

"They said if we didn't close the school they would blow it up with all of us in it," she says. "We were scared, but we stayed open."

Then a group of Taliban militants visited Parveen at the school in person.

"They told us we could stay open if we all wore burkas, even the little girls," she says. "We did that, but they blew the place up anyway."

More than 300 schools in Swat were damaged in this way.

It was a systematic effort by the Taliban to stop girls getting an education, and one of the main ways they chose to put pressure on the government.

But the Taliban are not in charge here any more and, in spite of immense difficulties, lessons at Kanju Chowk have restarted.

International students react to the plight of the Swat Valley girls

Within this wreck of a school, we can hear the sound of little girls chanting the alphabet. It leads us to the school's courtyard, where around 30 girls, as young as four years old, are sitting in the dirt, surrounded by their ruined classrooms.

They smile, and some hold hands, as they diligently repeat the rhymes recited by their teacher.

In one of the classrooms, covered in cracks and crumbling masonry, are the older girls.

Reinvigorating the community

"I was so upset when I saw what happened here," says Nadia, aged 12. "Our school used to be one of the best, but now we've fallen so far behind and we're forgetting all we learned."

"I feel bad that the Taliban don't want us to learn," says 11-year-old Sumeira. "But we love coming to school." She breaks into a smile.

"All of us here care about each other," she says. "The situation is so difficult, but the teachers are helping us."

It may not seem it, looking at what's left of their school, but these girls are lucky. Many of the destroyed schools in Swat remain closed.

On the other side of town, it is the women of Swat who are coming to learn.

In defiance of the Taliban, Mussarat Ahmed Zaib set up a training centre for women. It remains popular now.

The women are taught how to make handicrafts and they sit in groups chatting and laughing as they learn.

"I just wanted them to have an escape where they could get skills that would help them, but also just forget all the difficulties outside," says Mussarat.

"You can't imagine how bad things were. Girls weren't allowed to attend schools or colleges, women couldn't even go out of their homes."

Mussarat feels that, even though an army operation earlier this year pushed the Taliban out, there is no real vision to help the community get back on its feet.

"What now?" she says. "Ask me what the government's post-operation plan is, and I would say there is no plan."

The government says it does recognise the need to help rebuild the schools, institutions and the lives of the people of Swat soon.

But it is also trying to keep the Taliban away. Militants are still present in the valley and carry out sporadic attacks.

If the Taliban take back control here, the girls of Swat could once again be at risk, just for trying to get an education.

What is your reaction to this story? Send us your comments using the form below.

Read some of your comments:

All my heartfelt support goes to the girls of Swat Valley. Parveen and Mussarat, shining examples of what education is really about. Overcoming obstacles, real determination, empowering others, caring about others in the community. The attitude of these girls is the real reward in teaching. Inspiring, worthy of the utmost respect, true leaders of the world.

Patricia Strachan, Barcelona, Spain

I am deeply touched by your fighting spirit. Keep on and keep on fighting, for winners never quit. No matter how long it takes, Swat valley shall come to know peace! The determination and perseverance of the likes of you are making the difference in these difficult times of persecution and death threats. "Education is the key to emancipate". Get the women educated!
Cornelius, Accra, Ghana

Be strong. Women are powerful. It is the sad Taliban men who are weak when they can not recognise the right for everyone to be educated. They are scared of the power you hold within yourselves and that is why they are reduced to using force. Strong human beings communicate with words, respect, and peace.
Lisa, Belgium

Only a coward keeps a child from education. My Mother always told me a man can do many things to you but he can never take away your education. Get that and you can go any where and do anything. Good luck girls I am rooting for you!
R Steward, Whittier, NC, USA

What happened to equality and fairness? It seems to the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan the only people who matter are men and boys. I congratulate these girls and teachers in not giving up against threats of death and persecution. They are truly courageous.
Gurmit, Wolverhampton, UK

Progress comes with education. Progress is not a male preserve it is there for all. These militants are holding back their own country, their own people so that THEY maintain control. They know that if your people become educated, they will not be able to suppress you with their lies and false teachings. You should continue with your education, no matter what you are threatened with, only that way will you gain your rightful place in your world. My best wishes go with you.
Christophe, Lincolnshire, UK

It pains me to read about the difficulty that these girls and women have to go through just to get an education and life skills.
Rozana Jupri, Singapore

I am sad these happens in a Muslim country. Islam encourages Muslims to acquire as much knowledge as possible for the betterment of mankind.
Rahimzakaria, Penang, Malaysia

I just want to tell the girls that every child has the right to learn to read and write, that is Islam. Those people who do this to little children are mad people and they are making the world afraid of Muslims.
Fazimoon, Trinidad

My Dear Sisters, your courage is an inspiration to all. I applaud your heroism in the face of unimaginable circumstances. My education came easy and I always loved school. When I entered college and later graduate school I worked very hard realising that I was given a great opportunity and did not take those precious years for granted.
Wanda, Vermont, USA

I am so excited to read that your students love school and thirst for education. I am a woman who always had a desire to learn math and science; I simply loved the things that you could do with those subjects. I went to college where I studied engineering, and now I fly airplanes! There are so many opportunities here that many people take for granted, but when I read your story I was reminded that I have been given a precious gift in my education. Please keep up your efforts and do not let fear or terrorism stop these girls from learning.
F Woodward, Beaufort, SC, USA

Keep going. You, as teachers, are doing the most important service in the world. The girls and the women are our only hope for a better future and this is why we have to educate our daughters.
Chida, Montreal, Canada

It is birth right of every body to get education. I must appreciate those who strive to get education and those who educate others are really great people.
Abdul, Islamabad, Pakistan

My heart goes out to these girls and women who just want to improve their lives. Stick with it as long as you can, don't let the militants stop you. Makes me very guilty that I didn't enjoy school but am now very grateful that I had that option.
Tracey, Lagos, Portugal

My wife is smart and educated: Our marriage is much more rewarding on account of this as we have many conversations covering a wide range of things: I'm grateful she has an education. The saying "Give a Man a Fish - feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime" applies to everyone - not just men. I wish I could prevent those bullies from harassing these youngsters. I really wish I could encourage them, and I can only imagine the kind of fear they are being forced to contend with.
Jason, Ellington, USA

Education is a right. The child has the right to perfect himself by the use of his faculties. Education is necessary to enable the individual to achieve his maximum potential. Hence, every child has the right to education. The state is bound by law to provide the individual with opportunities for education, not to stop them in going to school.
Ida, Philippines

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