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How 'Women Rise' Champions Girls’ Education by Bringing VR to Pakistan Schools

Women Rise
How 'Women Rise' Champions Girls’ Education by Bringing VR to Pakistan SchoolsHow 'Women Rise' Champions Girls’ Education by Bringing VR to Pakistan Schools

Features

How 'Women Rise' Champions Girls’ Education by Bringing VR to Pakistan Schools

Women Rise
Features
How 'Women Rise' Champions Girls’ Education by Bringing VR to Pakistan Schools
Women Rise

Technological innovation can be meaningless if the world doesn’t benefit. That’s why Maliha Abidi, Pakistani-American artist and founder of the 10,000-item NFT collection Women Rise, chooses to stand at the revolutionary intersection of digital art and social change. 

It’s been over two years since Women Rise first sold out in January 2022 and raised $120,000 for gender equity organizations such as the Malala Fund. Not surprisingly, Abidi and her team have been keeping busy channeling resources from ongoing art sales and philanthropic partnerships into projects that promote girls’ education, including their latest program, BackpackX.

Courtesy of Women Rise. A student at Lahore University of Management Sciences trying BackpackX

Promoting education through virtual reality

In October 2023, the Women Rise team launched the BackpackX initiative, a VR education project that uses the power of art and augmented reality (AR) technology to bring immersive educational experiences into classrooms within marginalized communities.

The inaugural workshops took place in Pakistan’s second-largest city, Lahore, and Abidi’s birthplace, Karachi. In partnership with educational nonprofit Zindagi Trust and British Council Pakistan, the team introduced virtual reality (VR) goggles to 70 students and 30 staff members from two schools. The sessions were met with positive feedback, with a significant majority of students and teachers expressing that they found the VR experience engaging and educational, especially on the often anxiety-inducing topic of climate change.

How Women Rise’s mission expands to BackpackX’s focus on climate change

People always say that feminism is an “everybody issue,” meaning the ripple effects of empowering girls has the potential to improve situations beyond equal pay. BackpackX follows this thesis with the choice to focus on climate change for its inaugural immersive educational experience.

There’s a very personal reason for this decision: In August 2022, Abidi’s country of Pakistan experienced devastating floods that submerged one-third of the country and impacted at least 33 million people. 

Deeply saddened by the climate catastrophe, Abidi saw an opportunity to inspire younger generations to find solutions. Despite contributing less than 1% to global greenhouse gas emissions, Pakistan faces severe long-term impacts from climate change that tomorrow’s youth will inevitably have to overcome.

“Climate change from human actions impacts countries like Pakistan the most,” Abidi recently told OpenSea. “When you compare 1% [of global] gas emissions with a flood that impacts 30% of the country, it's just crazy.”

Young people will inevitably be the ones to bring forward solutions to these disproportionate catastrophes. Yet 12 million girls are left out of school in Pakistan and only 13% advance to high school. Abidi hopes that presenting climate solutions through immersive AR technology will empower girls and students of all genders to be part of our future’s solution.

Solving problems close to home

Abidi, who was born in Karachi, grew up in Hyderabad, where she says she remembers regular deluges during summer monsoon seasons. The Sindh province of southeastern Pakistan, where Hyderabad sits, features a flood-prone valley along the Indus River, surrounded by dry mountains and deserts. 

"Every year growing up, the monsoon season in July and August was a major concern,” Abidi said. “In our house, we would have to move to the top floor because of flooding. My grandfather would panic, trying to put up a brick wall to hold back the water, but then it wasn’t strong enough, so it did come into the house.”

Since moving abroad, Abidi has seen news stories covering the floods across the U.K. and the U.S. But growing up, she faced these challenges firsthand.

“As we were researching, we knew we wanted to focus on climate change,” said Abidi. “We just thought that it just made so much sense because we have seen flooding in Pakistan growing up.”

Designing the BackpackX classroom experience

In late October 2023, Abidi and her co-founder Aski Hassan visited Karachi and conducted workshops at schools run by Zindagi Trust, starting with SMB Fatima Jinnah School and then moving to Khatoon-e-Pakistan Government Girls School.

Later, the team participated in a panel discussion in Karachi and a university event at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) that focused on the future of learning and EdTech. 

Together, the project engaged a total of 70 students ages 12 to 15, along with 30 staff members across both schools. The students experienced a four-minute virtual reality (VR) animation that presented existing solutions to climate change.

According to Abidi, writing the story, creating the animation, and acquiring the necessary materials took the Women Rise team about a year. Preparation involved a lot of effort from the team, who chose to tell only real stories, and not make anything fictional. 

“We aim to be sensitive to the younger generation, ensuring we tackle heavy topics in an educational manner,” Abidi said. “We looked at the solutions that women and leaders of different communities are already working on.”

As she describes it, the animated VR story begins in a flooded Pakistan, and then the protagonist embarks on a journey in her dream, visiting different places to learn about how climate change impacts various parts of the world and how community leaders are helping. 

“I firmly believe in amplifying the work of grassroots community leaders rather than intervening directly,” said Abidi. “It makes more sense to empower those who understand their community's needs. By amplifying and empowering these communities, we go a long way.”

Photo courtesy of Women Rise

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