Emperors and kings and even queens have traditionally aspired for boys—male heirs to the thrones, who would govern their nations in the future. Very few, if at all ever envisaged or expected their daughters to succeed them. While the birth of a boy brought joy and celebrations, the birth of a girl has often been treated with less enthusiasm.
Girls have historically been considered lesser beings, less valuable than the boys, meant to be used in forging alliances with other nations through marriage and thus given a very specific kind of education that mostly stressed on sewing, cooking, home decor, perhaps even singing. Girls had mostly been kept behind the curtains, in the shadows—literally and metaphorically. Despite these obstacles that hindered their growth, girls have emerged as leaders, strong women, who in need could lead their nations through wars, struggles and storms.
Over the years, the world perspective on women have changed, so has the fate of girls. From being supressed, women have raised their voices for their rights—the basic rights of every human. Even in our part of the world, woman have come a long way in overcoming the social stereotypes to prove themselves equally valuable as men in all spheres, and a key factor behind their empowerment has been education.
Today, the world celebrates International Day of the Girl Child, with the theme “GirlForce: Unscripted and unstoppable”. The theme couldn’t have been more relevant for us because of our constant efforts to empower our girls in order to be unscripted and unstoppable. A key factor behind their empowerment remains education.
Many policy-level decisions have been made over the last few decades and effective projects undertaken to facilitate education of girls, which among other initiatives have helped the country improve its human development indicators.
At the heart of these initiatives lies the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) led Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP) I, II, III and IV and the Female Secondary School Assistance Project (FSSAP), a joint initiative by the GoB and the World Bank, along with many other initiatives. The PEDP has seen major success in breaking gender disparity in primary school education—according to an article by Shilpa Banerji, posted on the World Bank’s blog, the country’s primary school level net school enrolment rate jumped to 90 percent in 2015 from 80 percent in 2000.
FSSAP, initiated in 1993 with the aim of addressing the problem of gender disparity in secondary education in order to empower girls with knowledge, who would later take part in the economic and social development of the country as empowered women, yielded similar results in boosting the secondary school enrolment of girls—the project resulted in a spike in the number of school enrolment for girls from 39 percent in 1998 to 67 percent in 2017. However, while the enrolment rate remains high for both primary and secondary education of girls, increased dropout and low completion rates in secondary schools remain key challenges to address. According to data from the 2017 Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics, the secondary school dropout rate for girls stood at a staggering 42 percent.
One might ask why: the answers lie at the core of our social mindset that still has not been able to come out of the myopia created perhaps by its feudal outlook that regard girls as a means of procreation and an inferior member of the family, good enough only for household chores. According to an article written by Shobhana Sosale, TM Asaduzzaman and Deepika Ramachandran and posted on the World Bank’s blog, “Child marriage, household responsibilities, high levels of pregnancies, lack of access to appropriate information about sexual and reproductive health, mental health issues and school-based violence are some of the main factors and contribute to lost years in schooling.”
According to UNFPA’s State of World Population 2019 Report published in April this year, child marriage rate in Bangladesh stands at an alarming 59 percent. The country clinched the top position in South Asia and ranked fourth globally.
The government, along with its development partners are trying to address the factors that discourage the education of girls. In order to eliminate the poverty factor that impedes accessibility of girls to education and sees many of them being forced to take up work as Child Domestic Workers, the government is providing free textbooks and stipends. Over the years, the government has taken up multiple other steps to facilitate the education of girls, including the enactment of the Education Policy 2010, PEDP IV, the 2018-2022 Secondary Education Development Program (SEDP), along with many other such initiatives.
Despite these projects, the major challenge that the government and its development partners will need to address is breaking the shackles of our medieval mindset that discourage education of girls, perhaps because they fear the empowerment of women. But in order to have a better tomorrow, a future where empowered women will play a major role in the growth and development of the country—as part of the workforce, as entrepreneurs, as leaders and as well-informed mothers who will rear the future generations—we will have to empower our girls today; empower them with education and knowledge, because a girl empowered with education will most definitely move the nation forward.
Tasneem Tayeb is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @TayebTasneem.