Helping Girls in Bangladesh Realize Their Potential
Bangladesh has one of the largest primary education systems in the world. Education through grade 5 was made mandatory and free for all children in 1990.
Red Nose Day partner, Room to Read, shared that unfortunately, nearly 30 years later, secondary school education is still inaccessible for many children. This is due to overcrowded schools as well as financial pressures faced by families – particularly in rural areas. According to USAID, the Cox’s Bazar district, a coastal region in southern Bangladesh, has the lowest percentage of children of primary school age enrolling in first grade (71%), and it has the second-highest dropout rate (31%) in the country.
For Bangladesh girls, gender discrimination and social norms, including child marriage, make it significantly harder to continue their education. Even though girls enroll in school at equal or higher numbers through grade 5, dropout rates greatly increase at the secondary level, as much as 42%, according to World Bank.
The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating these issues. According to Room to Read, increased unemployment and loss of household income puts increased financial pressure on families, which could lead to families deciding to marry their girls off early to lessen the burden, or Bangladesh girls being forced to work to help provide for their families.
But in Cox’s Bazar, girls are defying the odds.
Gender Discrimination in Cox's Bazar
According to a report by the Asia Foundation, Cox’s Bazar is one of the poorest districts within Bangladesh, with 33% of its population living below the poverty line. Cox’s Bazar is also home to the largest refugee settlement in the world. In 2017, the region experienced a large refugee influx, taking in nearly one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Our partners at Room to Read have shared that the rapid increase in population has caused economic and social tensions, yet the causes of poverty and gender discrimination in Cox’s Bazar have been long present.
Gender discrimination is prevalent in Cox’s Bazar, exacerbated by education services that are over-capacity and families struggling financially. As a result, there are high levels of child marriage and early pregnancy in the region due to societal and family pressures. In fact, according to USAID, Bangladesh continues to have one of the highest rates of marriage worldwide for girls under 15 (22%), and 59% of girls are married before the age of 18.
For Keya*, a young girl in Cox’s Bazar, escaping gender descrimination has been a major challenge.
Although she is only in grade 7, Keya has already faced years of harassment throughout her lifetime. Oftentimes, it is unsafe for her to leave her home unaccompanied, making it hard to go to school every day. Keya has experienced verbal abuse from men on the street looking to intimidate her, as well as an incident where a group of men broke her bedroom window to try and physically harass her during the night.
This was not the only obstacle Keya faced. In certain communities in Bangladesh, girls are not allowed to leave their homes during menstruation. When Keya was suffering from irregular menstruation, she was pressured not to attend school, and her community sought “local magic” to help her, rather than visiting a doctor.
Changing the Story for Bangladesh Girls
Thankfully, there is help and support for girls in Cox’s Bazar. Keya is enrolled in Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program, which is funded by your Red Nose Day contributions.The program helps girls stay in school longer, progress towards completion of secondary school, and acquire the skills and agency they need to make informed decisions about their lives and realize their potential.
A key component to their work is the use of local mentors, or “social mobilizers” who act as role models, advisors, and advocates for girls in their program.
For Keya, having a social mobilizer has been a game-changer. After enrolling in Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program last year, her social mobilizer assisted her through the obstacles that she’d been facing. To ensure Keya and other girls like her do not fall behind, her social mobilizer helped show those in her community how there are many benefits to keeping girls in school, and the importance of consistent attendance. She also helped the community understand the importance of promoting safety and education for girls, all while teaching Keya key skills to help her succeed in school and overcome challenges.
“I have learned here how to be independent, self-sufficient, and self-reliant. How to avoid and how to speak up about harassment. I have learned all these things from the life skills education sessions” says Keya of the program.
Keeping Bangladesh Girls on Track with Remote Learning Support
Prior to the COVID-19 school closures, Keya attended school every day.
Unfortunately, Keya’s school has been shut down since March 16th, due to the restrictions and limitations of COVID-19. Her father also lost his job due to the local shutdown, and the family has no source of income. Like many families in the region facing the same hardship, they do not know when things will change.
Despite the challenges she’s facing, Keya continues to look to Room to Read and her social mobilizer for support. To help keep girls on track, social mobilizers are providing girls in the program with continued encouragement and key health updates, ensuring that the students continue to study and watch the government-sponsored educational programs on television. They are also continuing to communicate with parents and families, ensuring that everyone is actively involved in their child’s education.
To promote remote learning, Room to Read is working alongside the government to distribute classroom instruction videos, read aloud videos (based on Room to Read storybooks) and animated TV episodes jointly produced by Room to Read Bangladesh and Duronto TV. Of all the organizations sharing digital content through government platforms, Room to Read is the only one providing leveled material that is also culturally relevant.
“I love Room to Read,” says Keya. “They help me in so many ways. It was through Room to Read that I got to know about the distance learning classes on TV. Room to Read stays beside us during times of crisis such as this and I appreciate the support.”
#MindtheGap for Girls in Bangladesh
The longer that girls are out of school, the larger the risk to their overall health, wellbeing, and future. In Bangladesh, your support is helping provide girls with support and access to remote learning opportunities, so that they can stay on track.
Just $1 can provide a girl mentorship, life-skills training, and education for a day in Cox’s Bazar – imagine what a life-changing difference $10, $50, or $100 could make. Even before COVID-19, this work was urgent and challenging. Today, it requires a whole new level of innovation.
*Name has been changed
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