Unveiling the unsung

There is one category of humans that deserve a place in the book of gold, and these are those selfless people who ensure that underprivileged people are not deprived of opportunities that can help them climb up the ladder of success. Pakistan’s Sister Zeph is one such woman who began working for her community from a very young age. This month, she was officially rewarded for her relentless efforts and hard work by being named the winner of the 2023 Global Teacher Prize at Unesco’s General Conference in Paris on November 8, becoming the first-ever Pakistani to mark this achievement. The prize is open for teachers who spend at least 10 hours per week teaching children between five and 18 years of age. Sister Zeph was selected from over 7,000 nominations received from 130 countries. But this victory lies in the years of hard work.

Sister Zeph’s unbreakable spirit defies the odds stacked against her. She opened her school after she faced humiliation at the school she used to attend. At a young age of 13, she dropped out of school and used her home’s courtyard in Gujranwala to set up a school and teach children for four hours a day. She used to have a four-hour slot at night to continue her studies. And since she needed money to run her school, she started working as a child and her day job would end sometime before her school shift. Sister Zeph has now been teaching for 26 years. For years, she has used Google, newspapers, and English news as her teacher and learnt everything on her own. In 2014, she won the Lynn Syms Global Prize and bought land to open a training centre for women where she started teaching skills to women for free in the mornings (evening slots were for her students). One award is not enough to appreciate Sister Zeph’s remarkable life and selfless contribution. But it is indeed heartening to know that global bodies respect and acknowledge her services to her people.

Sister Zeph’s remarkable career also points to loopholes in our education system. No 13-year-old should be dropping out of school after facing humiliation. While this incident happened more than two decades ago, the situation at most schools (both public and private) is not any different. Students are not given a safe and respectful environment where they can learn without any judgement or humiliation. There have been instances where teachers have uploaded videos of their students on social media, adding seemingly harmless commentary on their students’ inability to learn and pronounce English words. This needs to stop. We have to introduce necessary reforms in our education sector and impart quality education to our students. Sister Zeph is a testament to how much a good educationist can make a difference.

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