News Feature by Naimul Haq
COX’S BAZAR | Bangladesh (IDN) – Many young girls drop out from schools in Bangladesh largely due to poverty and poverty related causes. But strong motivations for continuing education have changed the scenario over the past few years.
Despite the practices of patriarchy and traditional beliefs against girls’ education and employment in mostly poor families in the rural areas, adolescent girls in many regions of Bangladesh have demonstrated how defying such traditions can actually benefit their lives.
Shonglap – or dialogue that calls for capacity building or developing occupational skills and offers livelihood opportunities for marginalised groups of people in the society – has made a positive impact encouraging them to learn.
Ummey Salma, who quit school in 2011 due to extreme poverty, has joined Shonglap in South Delpara of Khurushkul in coastal Cox’s Bazar district. In a group of 29 adolescent girls, Ummey, who lost her father in 2009, has been playing a leading role among the girls who meet six-days a week in the Shonglap session held at a rented thatched home in suburb Delpara.
Youngest of the 7, Ummey, who wishes to be a lawyer, told IDN, “I had to drop out of school because my widow mother needed me to contribute to family earning. So I gave up lessons in grade 9 and joined her helping in domestic chores.”
With Ummey assisting, her mother earns as little as US$ 31 a month which is barely enough to support the eight-member family – although her small income is also supplemented by her elder brothers fishing in the deep sea.
Ummey continued: “After about a year working as helping hand in a furniture factory I realized that if I had completed my education I would surely earn more than what the entire family contributes. So, with that in mind I decided to go back to school and also acquired life skill knowledge to earn while continuing education.”
Ummey is one of about 3,000 adolescents in Cox’s Bazaar who returned to schools after the informal coathing on basic school lessons and life skills training like stitching, repairing electronic goods, rearing domestic animals, running small tea shops, pottery, wood works and many such activities that generate income.
Jahangir Alam, Programme Manager of Shonglap Programme of COAST that executes the programme in Cox’s Bazar told IDN, “Those who graduate are also supported with interest free loans to start business – and so far over 1,500 such girls are regular earning members supporting their families.”
Ruksana Aktar, peer leader of the group in Delpara said: “Shonglap is basically a platform for less privileged adolescent girls to unite and gather strength through common dialogues. Such chemistry for 12 months gives them the moral strength to regain on the lost hope they once thought was the only way.”
Twelve-year-old Rozina Aktar had never been to school. She joined the group of girls in Shonglap in Delpara and after five months of her union with the group she was convinced that education and training on income generation were the energy behind life.
In tears the orphan girl told IDN, “I could not attend school because my uncle, who I live with, is too poor to afford my school uniform and pay registration fees (US$12 for each child during admission). But Shonglap has arranged my admission to a state run school – Shikhon – where they charge nothing at entry.”
According to a study titled, ‘School Drop Out in Bangladesh: New Insights from Longitudinal Evidence’ carried out by Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity or CREATE, an estimated 45 percent girls in the secondary schools drop out despite high rates of enrolment of nearly 97 percent.
The CREATE study during 2007-2009 showed that apart from the common reasons like poor health, poor sanitation, teacher absenteeism, lack of appropriate care, repetitions in classes and distance from home, poverty remained on the top of the list.
Rashed K Chowdhury, Executive Director of Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), Bangladesh’s leading think-tank advocating for children’s education told IDN, “Educational exclusion for girls is a major problem, especially in socio-cultural context in Bangladesh. Girls are still married early despite stringent laws against such punishable acts. Adolescent girls are encouraged to stay home after puberty to ensure ‘security’ and the most common reason is girls are used as earning members to supplement family income.”
Rasheda also said, “I believe such an approach of building opportunities for youth entrepreneurship to poor girls (for income generating activities) who wish to continue education, can considerably change their lives.”
Rozina is one of over 116,000 adolescents who have successfully returned to school since 2006 after several years or in some cases, months of break. “Shonglap gives me a new life,” said the shy little girl who recently graduated from stitching lessons for income.
Shonglap is designed to customize the needs of individual participants. Those returning to school attend in a prefixed life skill course of 9 months and then go on to learn income generating activities (IGA) for three months, facilitated by the peer leaders of her group. Such life skill 2-hourly-sessions are held six days a week.
Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, Executive Director of COAST, told IDN, “The journey at the beginning was not so smooth as because Cox’s Bazar is a highly religious society that restricts adolescent girls in public. So, assembling dropped out girls from schools was not an easy task.”
Rezaul continued, “Our challenge was to convince the parents and religious leaders who had literally opposed our approached but later realized that empowering adolescent girls had great benefits.”
Each Shonglap centre has a Shonglap Support Team (SST) comprising of parents, local leaders and local government bodies.
At the community level, SSTs and adolescent girls play a key role as they take the lead in social actions, such as protesting against child marriage and dowry payment. Due to the involvement of community people they can understand the potentials of the beneficiaries (girls) and become active to support and protect the girls even in a conservative society.
Mizanur Rahman, Head of Programmes, Stromme Foundation in Bangladesh told IDN, “Shonglap helps them to be more enlightened with knowledge and information to challenge the social odds specially violence against girls and all forms of discrimination against women. Not surprisingly, many rigid parents give more support in delaying girls’ marriage and protecting children from abuse and violence.”
Shonglap, spread over 33 districts in Bangladesh through a network of over 4,600 such groups, aims to give voices to the neglected girls and enable them to negotiate their own rights for life. The programme is being implemented by COAST and other NGOs with funding from Stromme Foundation of Norway. [IDN-InDepthNews – 29 April 2016]
IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.
Photo: Adolescents in Delpara at a Shonglap session. Credit: Naimul Haq