Sister Zeph has been named winner of the 2023 Global Teacher Prize at an awards ceremony at UNESCO’s General Conference in Paris.
The teacher from Pakistan is the eighth educator to take home the US $1 million prize, joining previous winners: Keisha Thorpe from the United States, Ranjitsinh Disale from India, Peter Tabichi from Kenya, Andria Zafirakou from the United Kingdom, Maggie MacDonnell from Canada, Hanan Al Hroub from Palestine, and Nancy Atwell, from the United States.
The prize is open to current teachers spending at least 10 hours per week teaching children aged between 5 and 18 years old, and this year Sister Zeph was selected from over 7,000 nominations from 130 countries. India was also represented for this year’s prize, with Hari Krishna Patacharu from the Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh being named in the top 50, and Deep Narayan Nayak from West Bengal making it all the way to the top 10.
Sister Zeph began her career in education when she was just 13 years old. After being mistreated by teachers at school herself, the teenager decided to open her own school in the courtyard of her home. She has now been teaching for 26 years and is a passionate advocate for girls’ education.
Sister Zeph grew up in a community where education was not valued highly, and she is the only formally educated person in her family. When she first opened the school, she was teaching local students for 4 hours each day and also committing to learning herself for 4 hours each night. On top of this, she was working 8-hour days before her teaching shift even started.
From these beginnings with a few local students in her courtyard, years later she now provides 215 underprivileged students with free education and has graduated from her courtyard to a proper school building. She has also established her own organisation with the mission to raise the status of women through education and empowerment, called the The Zephaniah Free Education & Women's Empowerment (ZWEE) Foundation, which currently employs 26 former students.
Her journey to this point, however, has not been smooth. In 2006, gunmen attacked her home for teaching girls, causing her to flee the village with her family for 6 months. When she returned, she said she would never leave her students alone, and now says she ‘will keep working to educate the children of the world as long as I am alive’.
Her passion for equal education for girls and women is evident in the many initiatives she has implemented in her community, such as running a Vocational Centre that has helped more than 6,000 women gain skills in ICT, textiles and English language. Many of Sister Zeph’s female students are now highly educated and completing Masters degrees.
The Global Teacher Prize is presented by the Varkey Foundation. This year it was organised in collaboration with UNESCO and in strategic partnership with global philanthropic organisation Dubai Cares. You can read more about the top 10 and top 50 finalists for 2023 here.