A Pakistani rickshaw driver who provides a free transport service to 300 schoolgirls has been hailed as a hero for his work in his native Peshawar province.
“My mission is to ensure that every girl receives an education," said Arab Shah, 33, in Pir Bala, a suburban neighbourhood of Peshawar city.
Mr Shah, 33, began taking girls to school in his rented rickshaw, driven by regret over being unable to support his five sisters during their school years. His free service has now expanded to include an auto rickshaw and four Suzuki vans that transport hundreds of girls to school and back.
“My sisters now proudly say, 'it’s a good thing we couldn't get an education, other girls would suffer, and you wouldn't have discovered this greatness within you',” he told The National.
His work has gained support from the world-renowned Pakistani women's education advocate, Malala Yousafzai, and her family.
“When I saw his story in the media, it brought me immense joy, and I immediately contacted Shah to support his remarkable work. Malala also spoke with him and appreciated his efforts in ensuring that girls receive an education,” Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, told The National.
In Pir Bala, several girls told The National that Mr Shah's service had allowed them to pursue their dreams.
Madiha Bannat, a 10th-grade student whose father passed away during her childhood, and whose mother works as a housekeeper in various homes in her village, said she had found it difficult to continue her education due to travel expenses.
However, “Bhaijan” (Dear Brother), as she calls Arab Shah, took on the responsibility of getting her to school.
“For the past five years, without paying a single penny, I've been able to pursue my dream of attending school without any obstacle,” Ms Banat told The National.
Salma Khan, an eighth-grade student who attends school in Mr Shah's rickshaw, said: “When a fellow schoolgirl in our class mentioned facing transport or other issues that hindered her education, I reassured her, saying, don't worry, I'll tell Bhaijan (Arab Shah), and he'll sort it out.
Mr Shah said that in 2014 he had first rented a rickshaw and began taking take three or four pupils from poorer neighbourhoods to school during his morning shift.
After realising that many more pupils needed transport to reach school, he embarked on a mission to provide free transport to schoolgirls in his village.
Three years ago, after his story gained media attention, he received financial support from the Yousafzai family.
"When Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, called me, I couldn't believe it. They offered financial support for me to purchase my own rickshaw. I told Zia that many girls were out of school due to transportation issues, and for that, I needed a vehicle.
“Now I have an auto rickshaw and four Suzuki vans, providing free transport to over 300 school and madrassa students,” Mr Shah told The National.
Starting his duties at 7am, he does 15 shifts in the Suzuki vans and 10 in his rickshaw, offering free pick-and-drop services to school and university students. The other vehicles have been assigned to drivers who are paid for their work, and the income generated is used to provide one additional free pick-and-drop service for schoolgirls.
Once all the children have reached home from school, Mr Shah returns to the streets of Peshawar, ensuring he can earn sufficient income to maintain his fleet.
“Due to high inflation and rising fuel prices, I now extend my working hours into the late night to increase earnings," he said.
Mr Shah's efforts have been recognised beyond his community. In August 2020, Zia Ullah Bangash, a former education adviser to the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, presented him with a shield and prize in recognition of his work.
Malala's father, Mr Yousafzai, told The National that he was inspired by Mr Shah's story and suggested that his scheme be expanded to other remote areas.
"We will continue to support him in the future and will suggest to the government that Shah's mission of providing free transportation services to students in remote areas be implemented on a broader scale," he said in a phone interview.
Mr Yousafzai explained that there are more than 22 million children out of school in Pakistan. Twelve million are girls, he said.
"The primary issue preventing many out-of-school children from attending is the lack of transport. Schools and teachers are available, but students cannot access them due to transport barriers," he said.
“If I had the authority, I would implement a similar transportation system to what Shah is doing and name it the 'Arab Shah Transport System',” he added.
Mr Yousafzai stressed the need to break with patriarchal traditions and promote equal rights.
“The world has reached the Moon, and here we are still discussing whether women should be allowed to leave their homes. We should support our women in obtaining education, pursuing careers, and achieving their dreams.”