Cultivating peace: Rabia Raja

Rabia Raja thought she knew exactly how the residents of her home village of Dandot, Pakistan, should improve their schools. “I remember saying to them, ‘You don’t do this; you don’t do that,’ and they answered me, ‘What have you done for this place?'” Raja remembers. “That’s when I realized I could do something.”

Rabia Raja

Area of focus: Supporting education

Age: 39

Occupation: Entrepreneur

Location: Lahore, Pakistan

Peace Center: Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok 2011

That something turned out to be the Sunshine Consulting Welfare Organization, a Lahore, Pakistan-based nonprofit that brings educational resources to the country’s rural schools. Founded by Raja in 2009, the organization supplies schools with libraries or computer laboratories to let children see, in her words, “what the world beyond Pakistan looks like.”

Educated in Lahore, Raja initially worked for an enterprise-development nongovernmental association in Pakistan before going to Australia to earn a master’s degree in development studies. Only a few years ago, after her return to Pakistan – and that conversation in her village – did she realize how strongly she felt about improving educational opportunities for rural Pakistanis.

“Microfinance and enterprise development offer a means of earning, but you need education to bring out choices in life,” she says. “Education is something that cannot be taken away; it’s a part of you as long as you are alive. With microfinance, something might happen, and you’d have to start from scratch. But education – you don’t lose it. You only add to it.”

Education is both compulsory and free, yet only 58 percent of Pakistanis can read and write, and the average boy spends just eight years in school (the average girl, seven). “There are public schools, but in most of the schools, the teachers are seldom present and the students don’t show up, or, if they do, there are lots and lots of them in one class,” Raja explains. If students are not interested or doing well in their studies, she adds, parents often take them out of school, saying, “Why don’t they stay home and work instead?” Making education fun and engaging through activity-based learning, she believes, is part of the answer.

Spending three months studying peace and conflict prevention and resolution at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand as a Rotary Peace Fellow in 2011 broadened her perspective on what Sunshine Consulting could accomplish. She says that studying alongside scholars from all over the world opened her mind. “You can’t say, ‘This particular approach is right,’ just because it is coming from somebody living in a particular area,” she says. “You have to open your mind to the fact that a good idea can come from the top universities in the world or it can come from a village in nowhere.”

Sunshine Consulting has established libraries or computer labs in three locations, where Raja has seen students marvel at new delights like colored crayons and pop-up storybooks. “These children come from very humble backgrounds. It’s the provision of facilities that makes or breaks your interest in something.” She hopes that in a year or so, Sunshine Consulting will be in a position to found its own school. “It’s still a very long process,” she says. “But there’s no end to dreams.”