Ad­vo­cat­ing Girl-Friendly Board­ing Schools in Bhutan

To­ward Im­prov­ing Qual­ity Learn­ing Op­por­tu­ni­ties and Out­comes For Bhutanese Girls

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - (Cour­tesy: Nima Tsher ing, Brook­ings)

I grew up in the re­mote vil­lage of Bem­phu in western Bhutan with no roads, elec­tric­ity or tele­phone lines. Although I had free ed­u­ca­tion, it was far away from my doorstep. I be­gan my school­ing when I was eight years old and had to walk three-and-a-half hours each way to school. A typ­i­cal school day would start with the rooster’s crow at 3:30 a.m. and by 4:30 a.m. I would be­gin my ar­du­ous trek to school. The jour­ney through jun­gle, mud, rain, and dark­ness six days a week for more than five years was a chal­lenge of a lifetime. I would not only lose five to seven hours of study time ev­ery day, but I would also be ex­hausted from walk­ing, hav­ing lit­tle en­ergy left for study­ing.

After pri­mary school, I went to board­ing school. Free of the 7-hour com­mute, I ex­celled in my stud­ies in lower, mid­dle, and higher sec­ondary schools and beyond. Board­ing school, and the op­por­tu­ni­ties for holis­tic learn­ing it af­forded me, en­abled me to over­come ed­u­ca­tional ob­sta­cles I faced com­ing from a re­mote vil­lage. It opened the door for me to study at Har­vard and later to come here to Brook­ings. My life story would have been dif­fer­ent with­out board­ing school.

I may have ben­e­fited from board­ing schools 20 years ago, but to­day Bhutan’s dif­fi­cult moun­tain­ous ter­rain con­tin­ues to pose a chal­lenge for stu­dents, es­pe­cially to sec­ondary stu­dents. Un­like 20 years ago, though, the num­ber of board­ing sec­ondary schools in Bhutan in pro­por­tion to the num­ber of stu­dents is de­creas­ing due to lack of fund­ing. Al­ready, there are few sec­ondary schools in Bhutan, with only 92 lower sec­ondary, 61 mid­dle sec­ondary and 53 higher sec­ondary schools com­pared to 348 pri­mary schools in 2013. When tak­ing into ac­count those with board­ing fa­cil­i­ties, only 24 per­cent of all sec­ondary stu­dents have ac­cess, with girls and boys hav­ing roughly equal ac­cess. This means that the majority of sec­ondary stu­dents in ru­ral Bhutan must walk to school. As a re­sult, qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion may be at risk, and, even more crit­i­cally, girls’ learn­ing may be es­pe­cially at stake be­cause girls face a dou­ble bur­den: the long walks to school and house­hold chores at home.

Although Bhutan has achieved gen­der par­ity in ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion up to class 10, girls’ learn­ing out­comes have been less fa­vor­able. For ex­am­ple, girls per­form poorly in math and sciences in class 10 na­tional exams, re­sult­ing in their un­com­pet­i­tive stand­ing as can­di­dates for places in the merit-based pub­lic higher sec­ondary schools. One could spec­u­late upon find­ings such as th­ese that both tan­gi­ble and in­tan­gi­ble fac­tors like dis­tance to school and du­ties in the home dis­pro­por­tion­ally im­pact girls’ learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, par­tic­u­larly lim­it­ing the time they have to de­vote to stud­ies.

Beyond anec­do­tal ac­counts such as my own, ev­i­dence from some coun­tries shows that by re­mov­ing dis­tance to school as a bar­rier, progress can be made in achiev­ing qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion for girls. For in­stance, a study done in Kenya con­cluded that when the dis­tance to school is low­ered by one kilo­me­ter, girls’ aca­demic per­for­mance will in­crease by 64 per­cent, while there is no ef­fect on boys’ per­for­mance.

Board­ing schools may be a vi­able so­lu­tion for girls’ ed­u­ca­tional needs in Bhutan as it ad­dresses girls’ dou­ble bur­den, and more. UNESCO re­search done in Malawi shows that board­ing schools en­hance girls’ aca­demic per­for­mance there. In ad­di­tion to time for stud­ies, stu­dents who board have the added ben­e­fit of a holis­tic learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment that in­cludes op­por­tu­ni­ties for re­me­dial classes, and the de­vel­op­ment of soft skills and lead­er­ship skills that are en­cour­aged through the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and in­ter­ac­tions that ac­com­pany com­mu­nity liv­ing.

In Bhutan, board­ing schools are al­ready wellestab­lished in­sti­tu­tions of qual­ity learn­ing. While data dis­ag­gre­gated by gen­der is not avail­able, my own pre­lim­i­nary re­search of top per­form­ing sec­ondary schools in Bhutan shows that eight out of the top 10 mid­dle sec­ondary schools and nine out of the top 10 higher sec­ondary schools are board­ing schools. The prime min­is­ter of Bhutan has even be­gun to ad­vo­cate for board­ing schools as a means to achiev­ing qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion.

De­spite the high level of support for board­ing schools and the ev­i­dence link­ing board­ing schools with qual­ity learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for girls, re­source-poor Bhutan is fac­ing tremen­dous chal­lenge fund­ing th­ese schools. The World Food Pro­gram has started with­draw­ing its school feed­ing pro­gram support due to Bhutan’s im­pres­sive suc­cess achiev­ing gen­der par­ity at the pri­mary and ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion lev­els. But with­out fund­ing, the high cost of run­ning board­ing schools means many will be forced to close, leav­ing stu­dents and es­pe­cially ru­ral girls with un­nec­es­sary ob­sta­cles to learn­ing. Bhutan’s achieve­ments in ac­cess and our abil­ity to move for­ward to ad­dress “next gen­er­a­tion” girls’ ed­u­ca­tion is­sues will be lost.

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