Now is the time to refocus on adolescent girls
I was honoured to visit Bangladesh last week in my role as the UK special envoy for girls' education. The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has put girls' education high up on the agenda, pledging to stand up for the right of every girl in the world to 12 years of quality education. We have set an ambitious target to get 40 million girls back into school with higher learning levels in the next five years. The global community backed up this commitment at the Global Education Summit held in London in July, where international partners raised USD 4 billion for education.
With equal levels of enrolment for girls and boys at primary and lower secondary schools, in many ways Bangladesh is already a leader in providing access to girls' education. The challenge now is to ensure that all of these girls are learning, and that they can continue their education into adolescence in order to reach their full potential. During my visit, I was keen to learn first-hand about the challenges facing adolescent girls as they re-enter school following Covid-19 closures, and see the inspirational and innovative ways that girls, their families and communities are overcoming these barriers and benefitting from quality education.
From my visits and conversations this week, I was struck by the warmth, enthusiasm and leadership of the young people in Bangladesh. I spoke with various groups of adolescent girls in both Dhaka and Sylhet, who raised three main issues of concern in relation to education: climate change, child marriage, and gender-based violence.
At the start of November, the UK hosted COP26, the global climate conference. I arrived in Bangladesh fresh from these discussions, and keen to understand more about how the country is adapting education to ensure that children can stay in school. During my visit, I travelled to Sylhet, which regularly experiences extreme floods leading to school closures. I visited a government primary school in Sunamganj, which has been specifically designed to withstand the impacts of climate change, but we must all do more to make sure education systems and structures are more resilient to the effects of climate change in the future.
Sadly, Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and there are fears that the rate has increased during Covid-19 school closures. Education is too often one of the many casualties of child marriage, with young married girls unable to continue their studies. In Dhaka, I was pleased to visit the UK-funded National Urban Poverty Reduction Programme (NUPRP), which works with local women-led organisations to prevent child marriage and gender-based violence. I spoke to young women being supported by the programme and learnt how the local community was taking action, including through self-defence lessons. I am proud that last week, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced 18 million pounds of new funding for programmes to end child marriage, which will include new work in Bangladesh and reinforce the UK's commitment to women and girls in this country.
During my visit, I also heard directly from girls about how gender-based violence, or the threat of such violence, affects their day-to-day lives. Gender-based violence ruins lives, and we must all work together to eradicate it. My time in Bangladesh coincides with the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign. We've seen, both in Bangladesh and across the world, that Covid-19 lockdowns have dramatically increased incidents of gender-based violence, and this cannot be tolerated. The time to make a change is now, and the UK will continue working in partnership with Bangladesh, including through this new funding, to make a future that is safe for all women and girls.
The year 2021 is special for Bangladesh, and it was a privilege to be in Dhaka to celebrate the nation's Golden Jubilee. I was honoured to join the honourable Education Minister Dr Dipu Moni and British Council Chairman Stevie Spring at an event celebrating 50 years of Bangladesh's independence, and 70 years since the first British Council office opened in Dhaka. The relationship between our two countries is certainly historic, and I would like to extend my sincere congratulations to the Bangladeshi people on all that has been achieved in the last half century.
Looking ahead, I can proudly say that the UK will continue strengthening its deep bond with Bangladesh. Last week, Lord Ahmad, UK minister for South Asia, announced 54.5 million pounds of new UK aid funding to support the Government of Bangladesh achieve their objectives in improving student learning, supporting adolescent girls to stay in school, and enabling the most marginalised children to access quality education. Our excellent team at the British High Commission is excited to take this work forward in the months to come.
I am grateful to all those who have so warmly welcomed me to Bangladesh, and I wish I could stay longer in this beautiful country.
Helen Grant, MP, is the British prime minister's special envoy for girls' education.