How has Bangladesh fared in ensuring basic rights of children?
Bangladesh has really moved forward in the last forty years—in terms of enrollment in school, immunisation, meeting minimum water requirement and so on. The country is now a model in the world in family planning and decreasing child mortality (from 94 in 1999 to 46 in 2014). Maternal mortality went down from 340 in 2000 to 170 in 2013. About 98 percent children enroll in primary schools. Deaths due to diarrhea are now only 2 percent as opposed to 20percent 20 years ago(as per BDHS 1993 to 1994). But pneumonia and birth infections remain major causes of death. In a neighbouring country, 55 percent people engage in open defecation. Here, the number is less than 3 percent. The government has achieved these remarkable feats working closely with the civil society. We hope we can replicate these successes in eradicating child marriage.
UNICEF has been working in the country since 1952. UNICEF provided emergency relief to thousands of war refugees in 1971 and children caught up in several of the world's worst cyclones. For over 40 years, UNICEF has worked with the Government of Bangladesh, partners, donors, civil societies and local people in an effort to improve the survival, development, protection and participation of women and children in Bangladesh.
Now that we have made significant strides towards quantity, what needs to be done to ensure quality?
We are upgrading the services in community clinics. We need to ensure safe deliveries in safe clinics. In schools, we have to ensure that the children are learning, not just attending. About 27 percent children drop out between enrollment and grade 5 - an issue that is directly related to the issues of child labour and child marriage. Schools will have to be safe. New school buildings will have to be built keeping in mind that Bangladesh is prone to earthquakes.
In most schools we have about 80 children in a classroom for 3 hours a day. This is not conducive to learning or teaching. If you have 40 children in a classroom for 6 hours, as per international standards, you will not have so many dropouts.
The government and the Unicef will be working together to close these gaps. It is a great move by the government to introduce one year of pre-primary schooling. Pre-secondary schooling and vocational training will be the next steps. We need carpenters or electricians as much as we need doctors and engineers.
How can we address the mushrooming of 'coaching centres' that has become rampant even in rural areas?
The demand in the education sector is high. Public-private partnership can be a way forward. Schools will have to be better managed. Teachers and local inspectors need more training and empowerment. ICT can be used to put in place better monitoring systems.
I have visited some schools in rural areas where computers are kept in a locked room. Is a change in the attitude of school administrations necessary?
You cannot expect people to use technology if they are not trained. We have pilot projects in several “schools of excellence” to see the impact of computers on learning. But nothing would replace the motivation of a Headmaster or a teacher. And how do we improve their motivation? A number of things could be done like training and creating a better environment in classrooms. Motivation is not only a question of money. If you see a student do well in life, you get satisfaction.
How can quality be ensured when we get reports that recruitment of teachers is not transparent?
When higher enrollment was the primary target, entry requirements were lowered. Now it is time to raise the eligibility. When bad practices happen, the government should punish those involved under law. The ideas, the strategies and the willingness are there. The question is how you roll them out.
Can quality in education be attained when a lot of children are malnourished? Is school feeding an option?
Bangladesh has had progress in terms of breastfeeding. There has been a sharp decline in terms of stunting but it is still high. Children who have good food stay in school longer and learn better. Water is part of nutrition. A recent study shows that if you do not have proper sanitation you are likely to be malnourished, regardless of your economic conditions. The World Food Programme feeds children in many schools and provides them with right vitamins. The government is also working in this area.
A lot of children living in a city like Dhaka do not have access to playgrounds. Given the space constraints, what could be done?
It's not a question of space. A lot of schools do have playgrounds or a small park nearby. You need to use them. A classroom could be turned into a playground where children can do gymnastics or free hand exercise. You do not need a big stadium for that. Where there's a will, there's a way.
We talked about the quality of education. Sports are part of quality. School feeding and nutrition are part of it. Things are not in isolation. With the MDGs Bangladesh has shown a lot of promise. If we can hold the momentum, Bangladesh will become a tiger. But you are not going to get there by keeping girls at home. They have to be sent to schools, vocational training centres, colleges and universities. That's a proven formula for reducing and stopping child marriages.
The Interview was taken by Amitava Kar.