Empowering Youth With The Most Powerful Weapon: Education

A Conversation With DIL Founder and CEO, Fiza Shah

By: Hera Arham

As seen in missmuslim.nyc on June 21, 2017

DIL Students

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela, South African civil rights activist


Education is a fundamental right. But it’s not treated like one. Due to poverty and lack of access – over 72 million children around the world are unschooled. Nearly 25 million of those children are scattered throughout the country of Pakistan. And it is reported that it is more difficult for young girls to receive an education than it is for boys – with more than half of the unschooled population of children in Pakistan being girls. Fiza Shah is the Founder and CEO of Developments in Literacy (DIL). I had the opportunity to sit down with Fiza to talk about the meaningful work DIL does and how it has changed the course of access to quality education in Pakistan.

“…Over 72 million children around the world are unschooled.”

Fiza founded DIL in 1997 and, under her leadership, the organization has successfully provided quality education to tens of thousands of children and invested in the professional development of Pakistan’s teaching force. Fiza has spent the last 20 years of her life dedicating her time and resources to DIL and the children of Pakistan. Here’s what she has to say…

MM: For those who don’t know, can you tell everyone about what DIL is and when DIL was established?

Fiza: DIL, which stands for Development in Literacy, is an organization that I created in 1997. DIL helps empower underprivileged students by operating student-centered model schools and providing quality professional development to teachers across the country.  In the late ’90s, a group of friends got together to give me support to help make DIL a reality. We shared a common purpose and vision. That vision was that no child in Pakistan, rich or poor, should be denied access to quality education. We used government guidelines and compared them to the California guidelines to help develop a system that would be effective. We started by training teachers and helping create a curriculum and then moved on to enrollment. With the help of committed individual donors and some funding from USAID, we created an organization that helped us change the way we trained our teachers and educated our children. We gave them videos to help them learn and provided smartphones to introduce new technology. We want students to be socially and economically empowered, and to do that, we start with the teachers. We’re a hands-on organization with over 126 campuses around Pakistan.

Why did you choose to focus on only Pakistan?

I grew up in Pakistan and I was eighteen when I left. I knew that my contacts in Pakistan were stronger than anywhere else. I’m willing to work in other countries, but at that time, I wanted to work somewhere familiar. I knew the disparity in Pakistan and was well aware of how many suffered from the lack of education. I thought to myself, if I don’t think of them, who else will? I was privileged growing up in Pakistan and I wanted to give others the same opportunity. How can I face myself or God if I’m not willing to give back? I consider myself one of the luckiest women in the world and truly privileged to be able to give without wanting anything back and doing what I love. I believe we all live a short life, so you should make your mark during that time. Investing in education, especially for girls, is one of the best things one can do to make an impact on our world.


Where does money come from to support the organization (is it restricted or unrestricted)?

Most of our funding consists of restricted and unrestricted grants. Overall, I prefer unrestricted grants because it gives the flexibility to use the money where we need it most. In terms of our organization, our administrative costs were under 10% last year.

“I believe we all live a short life, so you should make your mark during that time.”

Why do you think education is important for socioeconomic development in Pakistan? Why does DIL focus on girls specifically?

We are not leaving boys out, but rather focusing on the disparity that girls face in receiving quality education. The statistics tell us that there are much fewer girls than boys that go to school. When a mother is educated, it has more of an impact on a child’s education than when a man is. If you look at medical graduates in Pakistan, 70% of those graduates are female, but only 23% continue working post-graduation. An educated mother is the one who is going to bring staggering change so that children are more economically empowered down the road. Studies show that gender inequity affects the economic growth of a nation. We try to ensure that DIL students, especially the young girls, are role models for their communities and pave the way for others. According to a study done by the McKinsey Global Institute, $12 trillion could be added to the global GDP by advancing women’s equality by the year 2025. I strongly believe that investing in our girls is the key to a prosperous and sustainable future.

What kind of students participate in the DIL program and what does a DIL education cost?

Students come from very underprivileged backgrounds with a household income that usually earns less than 10,000 rupees a month ($155 USD). We charge a very small fee, which is 100 rupees ($1.00) a month. We don’t earn anything from it, but it’s a way to ensure that parents who invest money will value that education more. However, some are unable to pay because their parents can’t afford it, and we provide an education for them anyway. It takes about 1,000 rupees ($15) a month to educate a child through DIL. Any money we do collect, we use for school supplies for the children.

How do you ensure quality vs quantity?

We have an amazing program team and trainers that come in to make sure we can keep it all moving. We visit our schools regularly and have a great monitoring and evaluation team that keeps track of everything we’re doing. The principals at these schools are all qualified and act as gatekeepers of quality education. We also ensure that standardized education occurs across the board at all of our schools. It’s a challenge to make sure that every school is performing at the same level, but we do it. It takes a lot of hard work but we are committed to each student. It’s personal for us and we want to make sure we give access to quality education to each student that walks through our doors.

What percentage of DIL students graduate and pursue higher forms of education?

We did a ‘where are they now’ study and we noticed that although our students do study beyond the secondary level, it is hard for them to pursue university education. Almost 80% of students pursue secondary education but we see a decline when pursuing university education; most get married, others are in remote locations and can’t afford to move elsewhere, and some end up competing for spots with kids from elite schools. A university education in Pakistan is expensive, but if a child wants more, we do everything we can to get them there. Our relationship goes beyond the classroom. We’re not just trying to educate them, we’re also trying to empower future leaders. We try to give scholarships to those interested in pursuing further education. We also work with other organizations to help them apply for funding.

What makes DIL different from other organizations promoting access to quality education in Pakistan?

We use technology, such as tablets and smartphones, to do more hands-on learning. We take our learning beyond the classroom through an initiative we call gateway, which allows us to help develop soft skills and help our students get jobs. Our model focuses on transforming lives and changing communities. Often, our students are considered the most educated in their remote areas. They become leaders within their communities and spearhead change. DIL promotes engagement in learning and tackles gender disparity head-on. As a result, this leads to a better academic and life outcome for DIL students. Most of our students excel in standardized tests and exams and go on to excel in their national board exams.

What’s the hardest part of being a CEO of an organization like this?

My biggest challenge is fundraising to make sure we can keep growing and remain sustainable. It’s been such a pleasure and I, myself, have grown with this organization. The rewards are astronomical. I don’t earn anything from DIL, but seeing these kids succeed makes me feel good. Our students are giving back and they are teaching others in their communities and families. If you believe in what you’re doing, nothing can get you down. I strive to always keep that in mind even when I feel challenged. I believe that education brings about transformative sustainable change and investing in a child’s education is investing in our future. That’s what helps me get through even the toughest of times.

I listened to your TED Talk, in which you mentioned that educated women in rural Pakistan become change agents by contributing to their communities. You said, “If we want to change the world, if we want to make it a better world, a safer, healthier, more prosperous world, we all need to play our part in ensuring that gender inequities and inequalities are simply removed from this world.” How do you change the perspective of parents who are unwilling to let their children, especially girls, become change agents?

As the kids earned their education, they also sought out jobs which provided them a salary that they could use to help out their families. Most of these kids face unwillingness from their parents because of their economic situation. However, when the kids become leaders and change agents within their communities, their parents are more likely to see what the power of an education can do. Education gives them a sense of freedom and empowerment and they are willing to take the small wins wherever they can. When we work on enrollment, we help parents realize that an education does not just help that child, but also the families and communities they live and work in as well.

How can someone get involved in working/volunteering for DIL?

Call your local chapters and get involved. It doesn’t matter what your background is in, as long as you have the passion for change. DIL has several chapters across the United States that help us meet our fundraising goals each year. You can learn more about joining a DIL chapter here: http://www.dil.org/get-involved/

How can someone donate to DIL?

You can donate to DIL on our website at www.dil.org/donate


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