Bangladesh improves girls’ education but challenges remain
Dhaka: Jannat Akhtar, 13, would like to be a teacher. A Grade 6 student at the Shahbazpur High School in the Brahmanbaria district of Bangladesh, she says that her education has always been free. “I received 1200 taka in two installments to buy a school uniform and other things. I also received all my books from school. Boys have to pay school fees from Class 6, but girls’ education is free,” she says.
After winning the 2009 general elections, Hasina mobilized her administration to draft the National Education Policy, an all-encompassing document that sought to not only raise the standard of education in the nation but bridge the existent gender gap in schools.
The plethora of reforms implemented during Hasina’s reign have also fundamentally reformed the way Bangladesh perceives and proliferates education, and it is due to this effort that social norms are seeing a change.
Today, Bangladesh’s Ministry of Primary and Mass Education (MoPME) has made primary education compulsory and free-of-cost, the resultant figure of which has been a 98% school enrollment ratio. Such a venture has been made possible, partly, by the nation’s education budget, which in 2015, stood at a staggering $2.185 billion. This was further reinforced with $449 million in foreign aid for educational funding – forming a monetary base which the government hasn’t shied away from utilizing.
Last year, authorities inaugurated a four-story building at the Jessore Women’s College, built at a cost of 1.5 crore Bangladeshi taka (1.25 crore Indian rupees) and is one of the many avenues opened up for female education and welfare, constructed under the Hasina regime’s development policies.
To further encourage female participation, her government also renewed the nation’s successful stipend initiative.
In 1993, the Government of Bangladesh and the World Bank partnered to start the Female Stipend Programme (FSP) under which girls would receive stipends contingent on regular attendance and stable grades in school. As part of its five-year plan, the incumbent administration has extended the FSP twice, whilst entirely exempting girls in rural areas from tuition fees, and further offering incentives in the form of scholarships and educational aide to assist women trying to earn independently.
Shahida Chowdhury, 28, a teacher at the Taka Nagar Primary School in Nasirnagar believes that because of the FSP, the attendance of girls, particularly from economically backward schools, is satisfactory, despite having to travel long distances and cross rivers. “The government is committed to supporting girls’ education and attitude of parents have also changed in the past five years,” she says.
Focus on primary education
With the introduction of the National Education Policy in 2010, Bangladesh standardized pre-primary education and implemented rules to regulate the dissemination of information for this age group.
Nazma Begum, Jannat’s mother, says that both her daughters enjoy free education in government schools. “In private school, expenses are huge. We are thankful to the government for giving free education in high school, otherwise, it would not be possible to keep my daughters in school. The money she received, I spent buying her clothes and extra copies,” she says.
The steps taken toward realizing universal education in Bangladesh have brought tangible changes. The national literacy rate has soared during Hasina’s decade in office – up from 57% in 2011 to over 72.76% in 2016. The focus on female education means that girls now outnumber boys in primary and secondary school. With a near 55:45 ratio, it is almost a complete reversal of the past.
In a study conducted by anthropological paper Demographic Research, scholars found that modern-day marriages in Bangladesh boast a bride far more educated than the groom, and that very few in the nation oppose this trend. Even the population of Sylhet, often considered the most conservative region in Bangladesh, is largely favourable to such arrangements; this starkly contrasts both traditional values in Islamic societies and sub-continental gender norms.
Cadre of female educators
Though Bangladesh boasted relatively high levels of female enrollment in primary and secondary schools, even prior to the Hasina-led administration, hardly any pupils had opted for tertiary education or training due to a lack of funds. Such a scenario meant that few women entered the realm of skilled occupations, with a particular dearth of female educators in the ranks.
In recent years, the Ministry of Education has overseen the effort to increase the number of female teachers by eliminating the aforementioned hurdles most girls encounter, and also by combining a slew of higher-education scholarships with vocational training in select occupations, particularly academia, at minimal or no cost.
A testament to the fruit of these measures is that women now make for two-thirds of primary and secondary teachers in Bangladesh, with a lower yet significant rate of growth in higher education.
Dhaka University (DU), the nation’s premier educational institution, now employs 630 female professors, one-third of the entire faculty, up from the 435 female personnel before 2009. Additionally, in 2012, the DU appointed its first female vice-chancellor, Dr. Nasreen Ahma, sixteen of DU’s department heads are now women, and female directors head five of its research institutes.
Child marriage: the looming threat
However, even with an almost utopian scheme for development in place, a select range of issues continues to gnaw the Bangladeshi educational landscape. In a report from 2016, the World Bank raised concerns about the nation’s significant dropout and low higher-education enrollment rates. Several analysts have also pointed toward the country’s neighbours, which continue to boast greater literacy rates despite a comparatively undedicated program for realizing universal education.
Rifa, 16, got married two years back and had to drop out of school. However, she has been re-admitted to a school in Tangakhali, in Cox Bazar, after almost a gap of three years. This, only with the help of her mother-in-law, Delowara Begum, who wanted her to continue studying. Delowara Begum, 45, who has never studied in a school, wants her daughter and daughter-in-law to complete their education. “Now education is free. I only have to buy books and copies for them. I want both my daughter Yesmin (14) and daughter-in-law Rifa (16) to pass school,” she said.
However, not everyone gets a second chance like Rifa. Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, ranking fourth. UNICEF released a statement, revealing that in Bangladesh, one in every five girls is married off before they turn 18.
Sheikh Hasina has pledged to bring down child marriages by 2021 for girls younger than 15, and for those younger than 18 by the year 2041.
(With inputs from Kunal Sangwan)