Our roof is the sky. Our limit is the sky.

It is not often that one leads by example, and from alongside. For Zephaniah, the brain behind Zephaniah Free Education, changing the world one person at a time was simply a matter of taking education to the masses. Here’s her story.

Zephania | Image: (c) Zephaniah
I was a very, very naughty child in my growing years. But I was also a leader at school – very sure of what I wanted to do. You see, I had plans of becoming a lawyer. I was thirteen when my first article on Women’s Rights appeared in a very famous newspaper in Pakistan, called Jung. I was always a dreamer and wanted to fly real high. My lifestyle, though, was a different one – though I had everything everyone else did, I always wanted to explore everything that was different.

My mother, like every mother in my country, used to tell me that one day, I would get married. This was what I was brought up on. I remember having always thought to myself, “No! God has not sent me in this world only to get married!” I was sure I had to do much more in life. My heart always told me that it wasn’t so.

As a child, I was very sensitive. In the course of my growing years, one incident changed my life forever - I left my school when I was in Grade Seven. What’s different about that? I decided never go back to that school again. I was so humiliated by what happened. One day while at school, I delivered a speech to my class, acting like a teacher. I was standing on the teacher’s chair. When our teacher came into class, she lost her temper and started beating me for my little tirade, in front of my classmates. She abused me and all the other girls made fun of me. I was just crying and crying, I was hurt mentally and psychologically. This was not the right way to teach a child who was just being a child.

In my state of mind then, I just surprised them all by leaving school then and there – and all at once, my life changed. All my dreams were over. While my parents tried to force me to join other schools, I stayed staunch and simply did not give in. But I never stopped studying. I started my own studies in the comfort of my home, privately. I taught myself - I never took any tuitions. Along with this, I decided to teach other girls – but with respect, love and care that I was not given in my school. I volunteered to have girls over - I started making home visits in my village. I made pamphlets to distribute among people. I told everyone that it will be free education. I walked even further, and went to tell people about my school in the nearby villages to convince them to send their girls. I told them that I would teach them English for free. I started visiting people with my mother on every Sunday, but no one was ready at first.

It was funny for the people around me - no one trusted me and no one was ready to join my school because I was just 13 years old. But I kept going simply because I did not want any child to experience what had happened to me. I decided that I would never use a stick in my school, and that I would make education interesting for the children.

Zephaniah with her little ones
In the beginning, there was only one student, I started it in open air and even today, there is no building. When I started, there was no pen, no copy machine and I only had a few books. In the summer, we sit under the sun, in winter we sit under blankets made as tents. When it rains, we have to shut shop. Our roof is the sky. Our limit is the sky.

At sixteen, I did my matriculation after training myself for it. I started a job as a receptionist in a telecom franchise, where I was being paid $15 a month. This was the amount I started using to buy stationery and other supplies for my school. Since then, I have continued working. I did my Masters degree in Political science in 2010, and another Masters degree, this time in History, in 2013. All this education, I continue to pursue without any institution’s help or the involvement of any teacher.

Up until now, I have taught about 500 girls. I have five centres now:
  • The Women’s Learning Centre: It has twenty students and we work to teach stitching, embroidery and other soft skills.
  • Formal Education: We have one hundred students, and we teach formal education.
  • English language course: We have fifteen girls as students.
  • Computer Centre: We have ten students and train them to learn and use computers
  • Beauty Salon Training Centre: We have ten students – and train them up in beauty therapy and the art of running a salon.

All this, I do as a volunteer. We provide all services free of charge.

I am also doing working in a bigger organization for my students and for myself. I am the Administrator of the World Wide Women‘s Community Page, on Facebook. I write blogs for a few websites on women’s issues in my part of the world. I am still studying. I am learning journalism from World Pulse and World Wide Women. I produce theatrical info-dramas in my community to give them messages of peace and respect for women, and on the importance of education.

My support system is my family, and my co-workers at office. They give me moral support to carry on. Of course, my very kind and loving friends all over the world give me opportunities to explore options and ideas. In my part of the world, we need to work on improving education. It is just the beginning of my work.

Here in my part of the world, women have to suffer all their life. They are tortured mentally and physically. They are not given education. They are not empowered. Child marriage and honour killings continue to thrive, and needs to be put to an end. When I look at the condition and helplessness of many women around me, it gives me the spirit to go ahead, to never stop, and to just keep going. I know there is only one solution to all our problems: and that is education and awareness. I want every girl to be educated, empowered and protected, and for this I will keep working throughout my life.