‘Girls must be brought back to schools’

11 October was the International Day of The Girl Child. A discussion has been held titled ‘Girls must be brought back to schools' by BRAC to mark the day. A summary of the virtual dialogue is published here in this supplementary.

Participants

1. Dipu Moni, Honorable Minister, Ministry of Education

2. Rasheda K Chowdhury, Advisor of Caretaker Government. Executive Director, Campaign for Popular Education

3. Aroma Dutta, MP and human rights activist

4. Sadeka Halim, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, Dhaka University

5. Asif Saleh, Executive Director, BRAC

6. Amena Begum, BPM: Additional Police Commissioner, Chittagong Metropolitan Police

7. Tahera Zabin, Social Development Advisor, British High Commission, Dhaka

8. Simon Buckley, First Secretary, Development, Australian High Commission

9. Nobonita Chowdhury,Director, Gender Justice and Diversity, BRAC

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Nobonita Chowdhury: I welcome you all at the dialogue titled ‘Girls must be brought back to schools’. National Girl Child Day was observed on 30 September in Bangladesh. Today, on 11 October, it is being observed internationally. Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, we want to discuss such an issue that might have long lasting impact on the future of the society. We know that the school admission rate among the girl children has been praised all over the world.

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About 99 per cent girl children in Bangladesh gets admitted into primary education programmes. But on the other hand, Bangladesh is one of the top ranking 10 countries who have been suffering from the crisis of child marriage. When the school will re-open after the long closure of almost a year, we fear that all our extraordinary achievements regarding girl children's enrolment in education achieved through decades-long extensive development campaigns, movements and increased awareness, might be compromised. Honorable education minister, we would like to start the discussion from you.

Dipu Moni: There is no doubt that the problems that have arisen because of closing the schools will be increasing if the closure extends further. But if we, GOs and NGOs, and voluntary organisations, all work together, we will be able to minimise those problems. We have to prioritise the health safety of the students, teachers and their family members before we re-open the schools. We are observing other countries in this regard. We are taking decisions from not only the education ministry, rather taking advice from the national advisory committee also.

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When we will feel that the risk has decreased, we will be able to re-open the schools - not before that. Because, we cannot take the life risks of the students and their family members lightly.

Nobonita Chowdhury: We would like to hear from Aroma Dutta. In Bangladesh, admission rate of girl children is higher than that of the boys not only in primary level but also in secondary level. But after getting enrolled in Class Six, 42 per cent of the girls drop out before completing the tenth class. BANBEIS statistics show that child marriage is a significant reason behind that. We came to know that child marriage has increased significantly during the coronavirus pandemic. Do we know properly about the conditions of our girl children during this ongoing crisis?

Aroma Dutta: The situation is reality versus expectations. We have to match them. We are in a pandemic situation. This is not a problem only for Bangladesh, but for the whole world. Both public and private sectors are trying to work this out. Many parents think that educating their daughters is not profitable. Child marriage is not always connected with poverty, psychological factors are also involved here. We have to review this issue from our social and cultural factors. So, we have to adopt vocational education widely. Not all will get MA or BA degrees. If we can implement vocational education from class eight, then the girls will have an opportunity to become employable in near future. Many girls work in the garments, and they do not drop out from there.

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We have to bring the girls back to school. We have to scrutinise what neighboring developing countries like ours are doing. We have to match everything with the new normal. The government alone cannot do that. We need support from the development partners who have been working for education for many years to find out the way.

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Nobonita Chowdhury: Amena Begum, let's hear from you. A BRAC study indicates that during the first two months of the closure of schools because of coronavirus, three per cent children said that they were victims of different violence. We will have to remember that the study was done through telephone interviews so the children might not have the atmosphere to fully disclose about the violence against them. Although three per cent might look insignificant but this three per cent of 31 million students is nearly nine and a half million.

Amena Begum: First two months were under lock-down during the coronavirus pandemic. People did not have any idea what to do during lock-down. We maintain separate database for violence against children. We investigate such cases of violence against children with special care. Officers not junior than an SP takes care of that. Sometimes, such information is hard to reach to the police. We remain alert about information of violence against children shared by you. We have some school based programs. We are trying to engage blogs that can be utilised to disseminate information about safeguard against sexual harassment and violence against children. People will be able to access live view from that as well.

Many school children are engaged in internet - especially Facebook and Zoom. It is very encouraging that issues like good touch and bad touch have been included in the curriculum. We have to teach the children the safety measures so that they do not become victims of violence. We believe in proactive attitude.

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Regarding child marriage, often the parents get their child married on their own. When I was the SP of Narsingdi, I saw a mother got a fake certificate from the union parishad chairman to show her daughter's age more than it was actually. Many parents feel it is unsafe for their daughters to go to school and think it is rather safe to marry them at an early age. We say it at many places that this is not safe. If you do not make your daughter independent, then you are putting her at risk. We have a social belief that girls must be married before they finish school education or else no one will marry them. I myself have faced it in my life. I have been told also, girls need not to study much.

The Child Marriage Restraint Act needs to be stricter. The trial process should be fast also. It is done by mobile courts also. We need to circulate the message more widely so that help can be sought by calling 999 in such cases. Schoolgirls should be informed that if they find any such cases of child marriage, they should let us know. As much as we can circulate the message of calling 999, that many cases of child marriages can be stopped.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Asif Saleh, the study done by the BRAC Education Programme shows that 68 per cent of the girl children are now staying at home. Roughly 50 per cent of them are being able to receive the benefits from alternate education measures including Sangsad TV. Those who are not able to utilise the benefits include children from rural areas, physically challenged ones, madrassa students, and from the ethnic minority populations. The mobile gender gap report reveals that internet usage of females is 52 per cent lower from that of the males. So, isn’t it more difficult to reach out to the girl children even with the alternative education system?

Asif Saleh: The crisis is getting deeper. This is not just education crisis rather it is a social crisis. The marginal people become more marginal in crisis periods. We are not listening to the girl children or the ethnic minorities or the people from the remote areas. We must take decision considering all the contexts. Whether we should re-open the schools or not is a difficult decision to take. We must consider it from a macro level that distance learning or learning through TV - these are temporary solutions. As six or seven months have passed, the effectiveness of such learning measures has been decreasing.

As we saw in case of Pakistan, schools were once closed there for five months due to an earthquake. They tried to figure out the learning loss during that time of closure soon after the schools re-opened. They found that the learning loss amounted up to 14 months in those five months because not only the students did not learn anything new but also forgot what they learned previously.

We are optimistic that we will get vaccines in the upcoming days and these will be available for all. But it will take around two years of time to materialise. We cannot keep schools closed for that long. This means that we have to initiate the process of re-opening schools right now.

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We could not get out of our deep-rooted patriarchal ideologies. Getting our girls to schools despite all these is a result of comprehensive efforts for many years. The government and the NGOs have worked together in that regard. Parents had to be motivated by reaching their doorsteps. We had to convince them that girls are not liabilities rather assets so spend for their education. Now again in the current crisis period many parents are thinking that they have to get their daughters married before they die. People have started thinking like that. So, we have to start thinking about how to re-open the schools gradually.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Rasheda K Chowdhury, let's hear from you. Not only are students dropping out, many educational institutions are also being shut down for good during this coronavirus crisis. Many schools had to leave the building for failing to pay the rent. Teachers are shifting to other professions to survive. And 94 per cent of secondary level students are studying in 20 thousand private schools. There are 40 thousand private kindergartens and more than seven and a half thousand private madrassas in the country. This means, a part of the whole education system can be lost. And the girl children will be heavily affected also because of that.

Rasheda K Chowdhury: The state is responsible for ensuring education for all. Thousands of private entrepreneurs who came forward as social entrepreneurs were not registered. Whether it is kindergartens, or madrassas or schools - all have to follow the regulatory framework.

We know that many of the teachers are in a vulnerable state now. As far as I know, the government has taken actions to assist the non-MPO teachers. It has even been declared that the kindergarten teachers can join the nearby primary schools. But this is an ad-hoc scheme. We will need a legal structure to do something for the teachers. Private systems will run under private regulations. But if we can bring them into an unified system, it will be easier for the policy makers to do something for them.

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We have to bring our students back to schools. Both the boys and the girls. We have to take special care for girl children as the dropout rate is higher in their cases. Many issues including sanitation is very important for girls before we prepare to re-open the schools, especially in the secondary level.

Do we have the data? We need to have the data for re-opening the schools. It is of no use to be emotional here. We have to disseminate the right information to the guardians while getting the children back to schools. During the first phase of coronavirus, when the educational institutions were declared closed, it was told that no one should go out, rather, all need to stay at home. But we saw that people even rushed to the beaches on vacation!

Now, when these educational institutions will re-open, we have to disseminate the message to all correctly. Non government organisations can contribute here.

Incentive packages have been provided for all the sectors. Institutional capacity and teachers' skills should be increased, and stipend opportunities need to be widened, school feeding system should be implemented for the children. Educational institutions should be re-opened with these preparations beforehand.

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Nobonita Chowdhury: Honorable education minister, some are asking the question that many countries have re-opened the schools giving educational institutions priority. Businesses have been re-opened here in Bangladesh many days back. Should we start the process of re-opening the schools now?

Dipu Moni: Life security will obviously be the first priority in this global crisis. We have to consider the livelihood with this also. We are comparing ourselves with those countries where livelihood is not as important as ours. In those countries, if people lose their jobs, their quality of life will not decrease much. We cannot compare us with them. We have to consider the livelihood issue seriously in our country. The government is doing this. This is why we had to re-open the scope for livelihoods.

We have thought about the education sector also. But we have to keep the reality of education sector in our mind. How many students sit in a classroom in the countries we are comparing us with, and how many students are in a classroom in our country? What is the level of awareness in families and in the society? We have to think about that. We cannot do that randomly just because others are doing it. Many countries re-opened their schools but they had to shut them again. We cannot take any risks about the health or lives of the children.

We are trying to expand distant learning system not only by television but also engaging all other media including online platforms, mobile phone, and radio. We could not do it 100 per cent, but we could do it, maybe, around 90 per cent. We started television classes, and made a lot of improvements to try developing that. We are also thinking about those who we are not being able to reach out in this crisis period. We are considering how the teachers can teach them by reaching their doorsteps or by bringing them together in groups. Not only the government but also non-government and social organisations are working in this regard. We have our limitations, but we are trying to do our best to do as much as we can amidst this crisis situation.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Sadeka Halim, do you think that we are actually not seeing a particular side of the social disaster before re-opening the schools? Will we need more time to realise how many girl children have got married, how many girls will become mothers facing malnutrition in this financial crisis period, how many will lose their future by dropping out of schools? Aren’t many of the social development indexes depending on how efficiently we are being able to assist our girl children to overcome the current crisis?

Sadeka Halim: Bangladesh has achieved highest progress in the index of women and girl children's empowerment. What we are seeing during the COVID-19 situation is that the education system is strongly tied with livelihood. We cannot find a separate solution for education, we have to see the situation as a whole.

Statistics show that around 43 per cent of the people has been driven under the poverty line. Families of school, college and university students are also in this segment. And 72 per cent of these families have SSC and HSC students.

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More than 40 per cent of the 35 thousand students of the Dhaka University is female. Our present government is the key reason for this change. They have made it possible by taking measures like stipends, incentives and fundamental changes in madrassa systems.

We came to know that 250 thousand students did not register for the SSC programme. I am not sure how many of them are female students. We need to know that. Another big issue is, whether the families will invest in female education or not. Financially they are in a vulnerable condition. We have to think about issues like devices and internet access also.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Tahera Zabin, the coronavirus situation has been a big challenge for Bangladesh just like the rest of the world. These challenges are much more significant for women. In your opinion, what to do so that we do not lag behind from the progress we have achieved in regard to getting our girl children to schools with the cooperation among GOs and NGOs along with other development partners?

Tahera Zabin: Family income has decreased due to the pandemic. This is why child marriage is increasing. If we want to get the girls back to schools, we have to take care of issues like violence against women and preventing child marriages, not only female education. We have been emphasising on women's education and gender equality for the last decade. We already have assisted 1.9 million children in technical and vocational skills education 50 per cent of whom are girls. These achievements are in danger now.

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Schools have been re-opened in more than 100 countries and the key focus of this has been re-opening schools safely. We have to emphasise more on safe environment than on girls' education. Maybe, the government will prescribe a guideline. It is important to evaluate that. We have to plan at school levels considering the context of boy children and girl children amidst the crisis. Including the families in these plans is important. I am not sure of what we will be able to achieve if we think of re-opening the schools ignoring the families. We have to think about resilient education. This is not about safe environment for re-opening schools only. There might be other crisis situations in future. We have to stay ready for such situations.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Simon Buckley, are we hearing the girl children's voice rightly amidst this crisis? Are we giving them enough opportunity? And how this can be ensured that our girl children's future is not lost, but that they continue to strive for equality?

Simon Buckley: We hear the children's voice as soon as we give them the opportunity to have a voice. And often we have the opportunity in the family, in the school, in religious institutions, at the mosque, and the temple, and the church, sometimes even in social situations like sport. But in this time when the school is shut, maybe they cannot go to the temple, or mosque, or the church. They cannot play at the grounds with their friends. And the opportunity for the girl children's voice to be heard is even more constrained.

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There is another space that has emerged in recent years which is the cyberspace, the space of social media. And that space has been created, I think for all of us to use. And young people including children are using that space. Whether the space is a safe space for their voice to be heard is a big concern to many of us. Often this cyberspace areas including the social media are unregulated. And I think the owners, families, communities and the wider society and its institutions need to be prepared if the girl children are to be involved in these virtual spaces where their voice can be heard.

I think we need to be very encouraging for the girl children to continue to have their voices heard. In one place you can do that is on social media, but, there are threats and risks and dangers whether it is from bullies, identity theft, risks including from the predators out there. We need to prepare our children - our boy children and girl children to go to that space safely.

Getting these children back safely to schools so that there are not any health costs important. And intensive efforts of the students , the teachers, and the parents are necessary to help recovering the learning losses. We have to ensure that the girl children are not lagging further behind. Sadly, this might increase child marriage and other such activities which will be detrimental for their health and well-being.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Asif Saleh, do you think that combined efforts of GO and NGOs are necessary? What can we do now to prevent the probable dropping out of girl children?

Asif Saleh: I think we have to disseminate information correctly from now on. We need to convince the people and we also have preparations to take before re-opening the schools. We do not have any alternatives other than disseminating information and creating mass awareness. The NGOs can contribute a lot in this regard. We cannot just re-open the schools; rather we have to observe well before doing that. I think the NGOs can make great contributions in the context of the crisis the education sector is facing now.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Honorable education minister, we will end our discussion with your remarks. Many challenges like child marriage, financial crisis, lack of safety, closing down of educational institutions for good have been discussed here. If we overcome all the obstacles and re-open the schools, will we be able to bring the girls back to schools?

Dipu Moni: There will always be troubles and calamities. And we have to find out solutions also. I want to emphasise on finding what best we can do. We are facing a global crisis and we have to admit that. And we have to think about how we can deal with it.

We are changing our syllabuses. Issues like women rights, reproductive and women’s health, and protection against violence are included now in the syllabus. We have to ensure that a student has been given the knowledge and trained with the skills necessary for being promoted to the next class so that the student can match with that class.

Our education system has become heavily dependent on exams and it values the certificate most. We want to come out of that. There will be evaluations. But it should not be like that the students are studying only for good results. We have to ensure that the main aim of our education will be to acquire knowledge, achieve skills and rightly developing the mind. Students should not remain in fear of exams. Rather, they have to learn with pleasure. We want to do it for all time - not only for coming out of this crisis period.

We have to incorporate updated information technology in our education system as we are approaching the fourth industrial revolution. You will be happy to know that we are going to roll out a vocational curriculum for Class Six to Eight and that of Class Nine and Ten will follow soon enough.

Establishing a technical school and college in each upazila is under process. Girls can study there. Also, polytechnics are going to be established in the all divisions only for girls. We are planning to expand vocational education everywhere.

Several issues have been discussed regarding child marriage. Our union parishads are getting digitalised. The ones in my constituency will be fully digitalised within the next month. If that happens, the possibility of getting fake birth certificates to marry girls at their childhood will decrease. Religious leaders, teachers, politicians, public representatives, families - all have a role to play here.

Many other ministries along with education work for girl children. We have to combine our efforts. Ministry of Education, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, Ministry-of-Social-Welfare, Ministry of Youth and Sports - all have to work together to bring the girls provide with such a package so that they can get all the opportunities to flourish fully. We have to ensure that they get the opportunities from their families, from the society and from the state.

We all have to work together to ensure that the girls will be able to flourish themselves as a complete human being by exploring their full potentials in regard to physical, psychological, financial factors at family, social sphere and school - all these three spaces.

Our children will learn through playing. They will learn with pleasure. They will become complete human beings. Persons of gold standard as Bangabandhu used to say. They will build the Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal) that Bangabandhu dreamt of. We all are working with that goal under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu. Many thanks to you all.

Nobonita Chowdhury: We can establish an equal Bangladesh, an equal world by creating equal opportunity in education and in everything else. Honorable minister, I will end here by referring to your words that may we be able to plan everything in the family, society and state keeping our girls and women in mind and realize these plans. Let us end our discussion here by expressing that very optimism. Gratitude to you all.

Recommendations

· Government and non-government institutions, voluntary organisations - all have to work together to overcome the problems which are being created because of the closure of schools.

· We have to adopt vocational education to tackle dropping out of girl children.

· Helpline number 999 should be widely circulated to fight against child marriage.

· Sanitation system for girl children is vital for taking preparations to re-open the schools.

· There should be free meal system at schools for the children, and stipend coverage should be increased.

· Non-government organisations can contribute in disseminating information on getting the girl children back to schools and also for preparing before re-opening the schools.

· Social media should be made safe for children to use.

· The education system should be made technologically updated as we are approaching the fourth industrial revolution.

· Teachers, religious leaders, politicians, public representatives, families - all have to contribute in preventing child marriage.