Boys and girls
Despite tremendous progress in the past, many young girls in Bangladesh still lose out on quality education
The female population of Bangladesh is on the
With respect to gender disparity in education, Bangladesh has indeed come a long way over the last 20 years, with female enrolment and completion rates surpassing those of their male counterparts. Yet, there still remains a need for massive improvement in the area, what with the country’s current education system being plagued with issues relating to a lack of female teachers, irrelevant curriculum and a non-conducive learning environment, the reparations of which seemingly continue to elude the federal government.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Bangladesh’s literacy rate currently stands at 61.5% with a ranking of 193 out of 215 countries. Although this paints a somewhat grim picture, it still represents a stark difference between now and the state of affairs that existed two decades ago, when there was a dearth of government programs geared towards the institution of progressive educational frameworks.
Studies conducted during this period show that the primary education sector is one that has benefited the most from such endeavors. As of 2012, the net attendance ratio of primary school participation for male students, according to UNESCO, is at 77.2% while girls have made sure to surpass their male counterparts with a net attendance ratio of 81.2%. The same goes for the overall literacy rate between both genders in the country; for young men, aged between 15 and 24 years, the literacy rate, as of 2012, stands at 77.1% while for young women of the same age, it stands at a whopping 80.4%.
These massive increases in overall literacy of both genders in Bangladesh can be attributed to UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) initiative in which two parts of the Primary Education Development Program (PEDP II and III) were introduced. According to the program, one year of pre-primary education prior to school entry was supported with every government primary school having a pre-primary class. As a result, approximately 50% of preschool children were estimated to be receiving some form of pre-primary education in 2012 with the figure increasing to nearly 67% in 2013.
Many of these achievements can be credited to the recent rise and reform of madrasa education. With a curriculum based on Islamic teachings and an environment geared towards
satisfying the religious sentiments of many devout Muslim families – for example, the belief that girls and boys should occupy separate spaces and have no direct contact with each other - such institutions give Bangladeshis peace of mind upon giving their girls a proper education. Perhaps this is why, according to a recent study, nearly 1.5 million girls are currently enrolled in such madrasas.
This rather encouraging trend does not, however, replicate itself in the area of secondary school education where figures posted by UNESCO are shown to lean more towards the average point on the scale. The net attendance ratio for secondary school participation for males drops to 42.9% whereas for females, the figure decreases to approximately 47%. In its review of its EFA initiative, UNESCO points out that over one-fifth of students do not complete the fiveyear primary cycle due to dropout and grade repetition. A high dropout rate at the secondary school level results in less than a third of the age group completing the secondary school certificate, which represents up to 10 years of schooling.
There is also a rising level of concern for the quality of education being delivered in these institutions, mainly because very few studies have been conducted in order to properly assess their validity and authenticity. This, in turn, indicates that many female students currently enrolled in such madrasas will most likely not be able to complete secondary school. According to interviews conducted by The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington DC for a research paper on Global Education, of madrasa principals in Sylhet, only 3-4 percent of girls completing their matriculation will be able to pursue higher levels of education.
Data from the Madrasa Education Board of Bangladesh on the number of girls and boys who appear for their grade 8 (Junior Dakhil Certificate, JDC), grade 10 (Dakhil) and grade 12 (Alim) exams estimate that, on average, 33% fewer girls appear for their grade 10 exams as compared to the number sitting for their grade 8 exams. By the time the madrasa’s students go on to grade 12, the school is missing up to 79% of its female students. Further compounding the issue is the fact that only a small percentage of girls who successfully graduate from such madrasas are able to enter the labor market.
Due to there being an overall lack of data that would help both experts and analysts to fully determine the performance level of such institutions, one can only rely on observations made by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Empowerment and Human Development Society (EHDS). The findings indicate that girls studying in these madrasas face a multitude of challenges, particularly pertaining to the kind of education being delivered as well as the type of classroom environment being provided. Most madrasas in the region are run by male principals and even classes are taught by male teachers, resulting in many parents hesitating on letting their daughters continue their education. Cloth dividers used to separate girls from boys and male teachers in the classroom end up affecting female students’ ability to see the blackboard and their teachers.
Though outwardly trivial, it is the failure to address such kinds of issues that have, in fact, led to girls in Bangladesh missing out on quality education. In addition to this, madrasas, on the whole, receive less attention from the federal and local governments as compared to the plethora of other projects currently occupying their agenda. Even several NGOs do not engage such institutions in an effort to improve gender equality. By not attempting to resolve such problems, the government is inadvertently creating a precarious situation for the country’s education sector, with the number of girls dropping out of madrasas increasing every year.
The Brookings Institution, through its research paper titled, ‘ Improving the Quality of Girls’ Education in Madrasas in Bangladesh: Discussion Guide and Program Plan, 2015-2020’, outlines several measures by which the federal government as well as NGOs working in the country can counter such challenges. These include teacher training, the induction of more female teachers, refining the curriculum and increasing the number of madrasas offering higher level education. At the community level, the study calls for programs to end early marriage, increase parent and community motivation and engagement as well as involvement by local government, NGOs and donors.
Through the implementation of such strategies, it is very likely that the eventual outcome of many young girls looking forward to a bright future will be positive.
The writer is a member of the staff.