Over a century ago, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah had an unprecedented vision for the region of South Asia: to provide exceptional, educational opportunities to students, particularly girls, to help spur development.

When Nusrat Nasab looks back at her achievements, she marvels at how the history and vision of the Ismaili Imamat facilitated her own success. Nasab comes from Gulmit, a small town in northern Pakistan known both for its absolute beauty and extreme isolation.

Laying the foundations of what would become the Aga Khan Development Network’s education system, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah launched the establishment of Aga Khan Schools, the first of which began in 1905 in Mundra and Gwadar in South Asia. In the 1940s, the proceeds from the 48th Imam’s Diamond Jubilee were mobilised to establish a number of additional schools — in the remote, mountainous areas of northern Pakistan and in western India. Today, there are more than 200 Aga Khan Schools and educational programmes operating across a network of 10 countries around the world, including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. These schools, operated by the Aga Khan Education Services, have an enrolment of over 75,000 students and employ some 3,000 teachers.

Nusrat is a graduate of the Diamond Jubilee middle school in Gulmit. But at the age of six, her life changed — she lost her left arm in an accident. She wanted to continue her education at the Aga Khan Higher Secondary School, a residential institution for girls in Hunza, which was 30 miles away.  

“My family was against sending me to a residential school thinking that I would not get the appropriate care,” said Nusrat. But a community leader gave assurance to Nusrat’s father, advising that “the Imam has established this school for girls like your daughter”. This was a life-changing experience for her. “All along, I kept thinking that if I do well, more girls will get such opportunities. We became ambassadors of the school.” Nusrat was part of the first graduating class. Now, almost three decades later, thousands of other girls like her have since graduated and assumed leadership and entrepreneurial roles in their communities.

Nusrat persisted in her dedication to learning. After securing scholarships from the Aga Khan Education Service and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, Nusrat was awarded a Master’s degree in Development Economics from the University of East Anglia in the UK.

“My daughter was only two years old when I got the scholarship to pursue my Masters. My mother insisted that I leave my daughter behind (with her) and concentrate on my studies. The immense support that I had from my family helped me achieve my goals,” Nusrat said.

Having served as the Executive Officer for Focus Humanitarian Assistance in Pakistan for many years, Nusrat now works as the Head of Emergency Management at the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat based in Tajikistan.

Nusrat’s journey from a small town in northern Pakistan to taking on leadership roles in various Jamati and AKDN institutions truly reflects the impact of the work undertaken by the Network in this region to help women achieve their true potential.

Dr. Rozina Karmaliani tells a similar story of her journey. Dr. Karmaliani, Former Dean of the Aga Khan University School of Nursing (AKU-SON), smiles as she recalls her father’s initial reaction to her decision of entering the nursing profession. “You are not a high school dropout so why do you want to become a nurse?” he had said. Not a career of choice, nursing in South Asia has traditionally suffered from a low status and many families were reluctant to send their daughters into the profession.

In 1980, AKU’s School of Nursing set out to change these attitudes by introducing an evolved model of nursing education that shifted from practical nursing to undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate qualifications in Health Sciences. It was the first time a school of nursing in South Asia became part of a university. Its mission according to Mawlana Hazar Imam is “to raise the standards and standing of the profession itself”.

At AKU’s 10th anniversary in 1994, Mawlana Hazar Imam praised these efforts and said, “…the university must continue its vigorous commitment to improving the professional opportunities and status of women and understanding of their situation and problems in contemporary societies. The School of Nursing has been a leader in Pakistan and the developing world in this regard, but we must ensure that the problems of women and the wisdom of women permeate the work of all parts of the university.”

Similarly, speaking at the AKU’s convocation in 2003 in Karachi, Mawlana Hazar Imam expressed his delight at AKU-SON’s progress: “This is the first time in Pakistan that postgraduate degrees in Nursing have been offered and I view it as a major achievement not only for the nursing profession but for higher education for women in Pakistan and the Muslim world.” Currently, AKU-SON is working closely with the government of Bangladesh to build capacity of nursing professionals and help improve the status of nursing in Bangladesh.

“The change has been phenomenal and has not only led to women development but has also improved the socio-economic conditions of families. Today, Nursing is a career of choice in Pakistan. Hundreds of young women from AKU-SON are now well-placed as nursing professionals across the globe. We can proudly say that our graduates are citizens with no borders,” said Dr. Rozina Karmaliani, herself a graduate of the School.  She went on to complete a Master’s degree in public health and nursing and PhD studies in Nursing from the University of Minnesota in the USA and has since been associated with AKU. She also serves as the Chairperson of the Aga Khan Health Board in Pakistan.

Female education and development is only one part of AKDN’s work in South Asia, which includes social, economic, and cultural development. From areas of early childhood development to higher education, and from services and innovations aimed at improving the built environment, particularly housing design and construction, village planning, natural hazard mitigation, and clean water supply and sanitation in Pakistan, the Network has touched the lives of millions of people like Nusrat Nasab and Dr. Rozina Karmaliani.