From school dropout to teacher who won $1m award: Pakistani woman now hopes to create shelter for orphans

The self-taught Sister Zeph from Gujranwala, Punjab, opens up about her life and challenges


Nandini Sircar

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Photos: Supplied
Photos: Supplied

Published: Fri 10 Nov 2023, 6:49 PM

Last updated: Mon 13 Nov 2023, 3:16 PM

Sister Zeph distinguishes herself as an outstanding educator, notable not only for her accomplishment in securing the $1 million Global Teacher Prize 2023 but also for her distinctive initiative of embarking on her teaching career at the age of 13.

Moreover, she has courageously confronted anti-social forces opposing her efforts, to establish and manage a school in her native country, Pakistan.

When asked if she was expecting the award that she received during the UNESCO’s General Conference in Paris, along with nine other finalists she said: “I had an inkling. But when it was announced, I was so surprised… I was laughing and crying at the same time. On purpose, I stood next to the trophy, before the announcement.

“My sixth sense was saying something big will happen, but I didn’t think it would be this big,” said the lady who has been an educationist for 26 years providing free education to hundreds of underprivileged children in her country.

Looking forward to coming to the UAE

An elated Zeph now looks forward to undertaking her maiden journey to the UAE, home to the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation, the patrons of the award who felicitated her.

“Everybody wants to visit the UAE. I am going to be there on December 8 for a talk.”

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The Foundation organises the award in collaboration with UNESCO and in strategic partnership with Dubai Cares, a UAE-based global philanthropic organisation.

Sister Zeph, an English, Urdu, culture, inter-faith harmony, climate change teacher at Gujranwala, Punjab in Pakistan, was selected from over 7,000 nominations and applications for the Global Teacher Prize from 130 countries around the world.

School dropout

Narrating her backstory when she was a young girl, Sister Zeph, told Khaleej Times, that she dropped out of the government school where she was studying. “We had to face a lot of discrimination based on gender, religion and other factors. I didn’t like the behaviour of my teachers. They used to beat us a lot so I decided to leave the school,” said Sister Zeph.

She continued: “But one day, as I was crossing a street with a pot of water, I unexpectedly encountered my former classmates carrying school bags on their shoulders. The sight struck me. Tears rolled down my eyes. I realised that they were going to school, getting an education while I was not.”

Despite that, she was resolute in her decision not to return to the school due to financial constraints preventing her enrolment in a private institution.

In response, she initiated conversations with her younger sister and friends. Together, they dusted off old books and embarked on a journey of self-directed study.

“Soon, I realised the potential for a more extensive learning community, and I took the initiative to recruit additional students,” she added.

Engaging in this endeavour brought in her a sense of purpose and fulfilment. However, she recognised that to effectively teach others, she first needed to enhance her own education.

“This realisation prompted me to enroll in private correspondence courses and diligently undertake examinations across various academic levels. It was through this process that I discovered the profound value of continuous learning.”

Earning as little as 0.12 fils

As she lacked the financial resources to sustain herself, she began doing embroidery on festive attires, earning below 0.12 fils (PKR 10) per shirt.

With the proceeds, she managed to operate her tuition-free school.

“It always occurred to me that if my parents couldn't afford my education, there were likely many others in similar situations, unable to provide an education for their children.”

But after persevering for years and acquiring her double Master’s in Political Science and History later, she started landing better jobs.

“For 14 years I used to work for eight hours in the office and then I would come back home and run my evening school for four hours, teaching children from underprivileged backgrounds. After that, I would study myself at night.”

But her impediments didn’t end there. In December 2006, her courtyard school was targeted by a group of armed individuals.

“In response to the threats, the police advised us to evacuate the premises, prompting my family to relocate to Islamabad for six-months. I experienced a sense of despair when not engaged in this work, making me realise that I am inherently connected to it. I came back to my village and resumed teaching students with even more determination.”

Despite pressure to shut down the school, she remained committed to her mission.

Transformation begins

But the transformation began after 2008 with the advent of the computer and the internet later, when she started sharing her content on social media platforms.

“It was at that point that people began to take notice of what I do. I eventually even won $20,000 in a competition because of an American online group I had joined that highlights women’s initiatives.”

Apart from teaching, Sister Zeph also provides financial assistance to families choosing between educating their children and paying their bills and runs a vocational centre that has helped more than 6,000 women gain skills in ICT, textiles, and the English language.

In a message to all the teachers, she highlights regardless of the challenges one faces, continuous learning is essential.

“In today's era, making a positive impact in the world requires constant adaptation and a willingness to learn daily.”

With the Global Teacher Prize funds, Sister Zeph, plans to build a school on 10 acres where children from the poorest families in the country can be educated without discrimination.

“I would also like to create a shelter for orphans, where food would be grown on the property and teachers from all parts of the world would be invited to instruct them in a range of subjects. I feel teachers possess the capability to transform the lives of others positively, so our role is unique.”


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