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  » Education

Education For All

A Second Chance for Girls

Success Story from Bangladesh.

05th November 2007 | Stephen McCutcheon

Bangladesh has its problems. Today only one third of its population can read and write; less than half of its students finish primary school; 20 percent of all teachers donít even bother showing up to school in the morning to take an average class of 56 students.

And yet just as the storm clouds gather overhead, one ray of hope is catching envious glances the world over.

Looking Back

Back in 1982, the Bangladesh Association for Community Education (BACE) set out on a mission to improve the education of girls nationwide. The Government was concerned about a rapidly exploding population and studies showed that secondary education for girls was a way to delay marriage and increase the use of contraceptives.

The Female Stipend Programme (FSP) was originally only begun in a few areas of the country at the start. BACE found that cash for education was the most direct way to get girls into classrooms and with funding from USAID the programme rapidly expanded.

In 1990, the World Conference on Education for All in Thailand exploded onto the world scene, injecting a huge boost of adrenaline into Bangladeshi reforms. The very same year primary education was made compulsory across the country and unprecedented efforts were made to follow it through.

Education suddenly became free for all children aged 6 - 10. International funding soared, more schools were built, text books were provided free of cost, food for education schemes offset meal costs, a new curriculum was enacted, and primary education offered a new generation of children a chance their parents never had.

Governmental efforts continued through a concerted publicity campaign to prove the benefits of educating girls to a sceptical populace. Emphasis was placed on recruiting women as teachers and national aid organisations (such as BRAC) helped increase access to the majority of the nationís primary aged youth.

In 1994, FSP was rolled out across the country, buttressed by new support from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Norwayís development fund (NORAD). The goals of the programme were expanded to improve the quality of girlís education and increase their future earning potential.

School Management Committees (SMCs) were set up around the nation to monitor progress and with the power to hire and fire under-performing teachers. The committees were provided with training in school accountability and were responsible for the day to day running of the school and its students.

Any girl in classes from Grade 6 - 10 (age 11 to 15) was eligible to receive a monthly payment providing she attended 75 percent of all lessons, achieved 45 percent in their final exams and remained unmarried until she left school. Not an easy task.

To keep the process simple, a scheme was devised to pay each girl directly into her own bank account. Every month eligible students were paid around $1 to cover text book, uniforms and stationery costs. Each one was given a passbook to collect it with and if a bank wasnít near a school, temporary facilities were set up on site.

Astonishing Success

Results were immediate; enrollments soared. In 1970, only 1 in 5 students in schools were female. Today, the proportion of girls almost equals or even outnumbers boys. From grades one to five, 49.7 percent of students are female and an outstanding 53.4 percent from grades six to ten are female, almost unheard of in South Asia.

Enrollment rates for girls stand at 95 percent in primary school and 51 percent at secondary level, again higher than for boys. Since the program went national in 1994, enrollments have doubled year on year until there was an additional 4 million girls in school by 2002.

By 1998, girlís final secondary school examination results had overtaken boys in metropolitan areas and by the year 2000, Bangladesh had finally achieved gender parity in its schools (way before the 2005 deadline). Both girls and boys can now expect to receive 8 years education as opposed to only 4 years for girls in 1990.

Across the country the effects are even more striking. Sky high fertility rates have halved since 1970 to just 3 children per woman in 2005. Early marriage (below 18) seems to be lower for educated girls. Girls are travelling to school in greater numbers, women are forming a major part of the workforce (especially in the garment industry) and many are starting up their own businesses.

Female education may also be finally eroding some of the countryís more unsavoury traditions like the Ďgiftí of dowry, i.e. payment for a girl to a future husbandís family when a couple get married. Today some women in Bangladesh are finally saying no to this medieval practice by claiming the right to earn for themselves.

Challenges Ahead

Unfortunately, Bangladesh still has a long way to go before it can claim that every child receives an equitable education. Female literacy languished at 33 percent in 2004 and enrollments are now flagging as donors target stipends at needier families in a bid to become more economical.

The school system is currently massively overcrowded and literally bulging at the seams. Faced with average class sizes of 56 students, teachers are bailing out and 1 in 5 fail to show up in the morning. Bangladesh currently needs 65,000 teachers per year until 2015 if itís ever to stand a chance of achieving universal education.

As is always the case, quality suffers when demand over runs supply. Bangladesh has too few schools and by far insufficient teachers to fill them. At the primary level, the Government remains intent on cramming as many children into its creaking schools as it can and the immediate result is that 35 percent drop out by grade 5.

Embattled schools, low on resources, cannot provide students with the quality of education they need to pass their exams and pass rates are terrible. Under such circumstances, itís unsurprising that many children fail to see the relevance of even attending school, and many are unlikely to give secondary education a chance.

Around 95 percent of all secondary schools in Bangladesh are private and while the Government pays 80 percent of teacherís wages, nearly all schools charge tuition fees. Whilst female stipends help to some extent; tradition, cost and few economic opportunities mean that the majority of both girls and boys drop out early and even fewer pass their final exams.

The Future?

Bangladesh is the seventh most populated country, and excluding a few city and island states, the most densely populated. With 40 percent of its population under 18, the country must push forward an agenda to lower its population or face huge demographic problems later on.

What's admirable in Bangladesh is way the Government is changing attitudes about womenís independence in a traditional and patriarchal Islamic society. This was no easy road to follow. Although, this population giant still faces many problems, the Government has tackled the issues many other countries fear to solve.

Spending one of the lowest education budgets in the world, Bangladesh has managed to increase access to female education, increased enrollments for all children, achieved gender disparity, lowered fertility rates and at the outset, planted the seeds for early womenís empowerment.

"You canít help people who don't want your help"

The Bangladeshi model is lauded the world over for its accomplishments. It has showed the world how important it is build up from the bottom of society and not simply on top of it. Instead of simply building schools and expecting people to fill and run them, Bangladesh is working with its people to create a need for education first. You canít help people who donít want your help.

By empowering school committees, launching publicity campaigns to promote girl education, training and supporting teachers, the Government is establishing the foundation for a successful long term education programme. The war on illiteracy will not be won overnight. It took the West hundreds of years to achieve.

Looking ahead to the future, Bangladesh could still regress if investment drops and political commitment fail. Alternatively, current issues regarding dropouts, quality, infrastructure and low teacher turnout can be solved by increased support from the Government and greater funding. For most countries the real problems are the ones Bangladesh is attempting to solve now, and thatís the most important thing to notice here: changing peopleís minds.

The World Bank has recently agreed to invest $24 million to extend the FSP until 2020. The program will invest more in teacher training; expand stipend payments and ensure greater community support in quality schooling. If greater success follows, further studies may also help other nations begin similar programs for victories of their own.

Traditional Criticisms

When studying the progress reports on womenís empowerment in Bangladesh, whilst we cannot compare womenís hard won freedoms to those of the West, we can also not ignore them either. Reports either polarize the accomplishments as either revolutionary change or disparaging progress without considering the greater picture.

In Bangladesh today, a combination of factors mean that women have taken their first step in a country that is extremely traditional and averse to change. It took female liberation over a hundred years to get going in the West and it will take time here also.

We cannot compare our countries nor can we ignore what progress has achieved. There may still be a long way to go, but the hint of potential is clearly in the air. Girls can see now that a possible future does await them and as more push to secure a better life, others will follow and change will hopefully gain progress.

  • Beyond Access: Partnership for Quality with Equity, (2005)
  • - Ahmed, Chowdhury
  • Bangladesh - Beyond Access Paper
  • Underlines the definition of equity, how that relates to Bangladesh and key lessons that can be learnt from the experience.
  • Female secondary school stipend programme in Bangladesh: A critical assessment (2006)
  • - World Bank Publication
  • Summary of the World Bankís million dollar contribution to FSP called the Female Secondary School Assistance Project (FSSAP).
  • World Bank Case Study: Bangladesh, Female Secondary School Assistance (1996)
  • - Xiaoyan Liang
  • World Bank Case Study - Read Online
  • World Bank overview of itís investment in the Bangladesh Female Stipend Programme. High on statistics, gives a general overview.
  • UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2007
  • (2007)
  • Extremely comprehensive report detailing progress, trends and major obstacles to global EFA by 2015. Statistical tables very good for up to the minute information.

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