Shuborna is the daughter of a roadside shopkeeper in remote Chandrapur village in Brahmanbaria to the northeast of Dhaka. She is studying science at a college in a neighboring village and dreams of becoming a doctor one day. No one in Shuborna's family has been to college. In fact, the highest level of education attained in the family was by a few boys who studied till fifth grade. Shuborna's mother says, "Our financial condition is not too good, but we still hope to send our daughter to medical college. There has been a big change in our family because of Shuborna's education. Earlier, I did not have a clear idea about children's vaccination and common diseases. Now my daughter has explained a lot of these things to me. She also helps me deposit money in the bank and make other major calculations."
Maya Rani also lives in Chandrapur and studies in the eighth grade. Her family lives in a small hut; her father is a boatman who ferries people across the local river and her mother is a domestic servant. Both parents are illiterate. Maya's father, Haran Chandra, says, "Leave alone the women, not even a single man in our family has been able to reach the eighth grade. But my daughter is studying in class 8. What could make me happier?" Now that Maya is literate, she helps tutor her two younger brothers in addition to helping her mother in financial matters.
Asked how he can afford Maya's education, Chandra says, "Girls don't need to pay any school fees now. Instead, the school pays her, so I don't have to spend extra money on her education."
The population of Chandrapur is nearly 1,500 people, most of whom are illiterate. The village has one primary school, but no high school or college. Maya and Shuborna have to walk two kilometers to the neighboring village to attend their classes. That they do so is in large part thanks to government programs that offer free education and scholarships to girls in government schools.
According to Dr Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, a former professor of Dhaka University, "Now there are more educated women in our country than before...This is a good sign. Half of the population of the country is women but they cannot take part in economic activities because they are not educated. Needless to say, the government ought to address this condition."
In addition to challenging the patriarchal norms that devalue women's education, there is also the need to create economic opportunities for women. According to Chowdhury, "Even if women are educated, we are unable to create job opportunities for them...A change is needed in the social mindset, otherwise there will be no development in the socio-economic condition of the country."
Educating girls has a catalytic effect on their families and villages. Like Maya Rani, such girls extend the benefits of their education to family members and provide a positive role model to other girls as well. As Chowdhury says, "In every family, the presence of an educated mother, daughter or sister is invaluable."
The number of girls in schools and colleges has increased in recent years. In fact, UNICEF's 2004 figures for education show that girls are doing better than boys in every indicator - primary school enrolment and attendance, secondary school enrolment and attendance.
Education department officials say that in addition to providing free education to girls from the sixth to the tenth grade, the government also offers girls scholarships, beginning from Tk 300 (US$1=69.95 Taka) per year to sixth graders and going up to Tk 1,350 per year to twelfth graders. In some cases, it supplements these with a book allowance (ninth grade) and registration money (tenth grade).
According to Professor Abu Ahmed, an eminent economist at Dhaka University, "Women always work, but we do not assess the work they do at home. That is why, besides being educated, a girl has to be self-sufficient. Only then will there be a genuine development in the country. If women are educated, their productivity will increase both at home and outside and the tendency in our society to marry them off at an early age will gradually decrease."
Ahmed believes that women's work in cottage industries and garment factories makes a major contribution to the national economy. He especially praises the government's education schemes and food-for-education programs that have a ripple effect on both the society and the economy. Education receives 13.4 per cent of the budget, the single highest allocation of any sector, a move that Ahmed praises as "revolutionary". He says, "These projects are playing a vital role in increasing the rate of literacy and they will also have a long-term impact. It is especially important in a Muslim community for girls to be educated. This will reduce poverty and the practice of dowry."
According to Assistant Professor Jalaluddin at Dhaka University, in order to make progress, a small country like Bangladesh must turn its population into human resources and women's education is essential for this. He says, "If we give top priority to the education sector, other sectors like family planning and health will see faster progress. But in this case, the government will have to keep a keen eye on whether allocations made for this purpose are properly used or not."
On an encouraging note, Professor Jalaluddin adds that the success of the Bangladeshi government's education initiatives has prompted the United Nations to consider replicating these schemes in other developing countries.