Splitting the Sexes
Saad, 12, a student at St. Joseph Boys' School in Dhaka, had a strong interest in learning music. So his mother enrolled him in Shishukunja, a local music school. Soon, however, he refused to continue with lessons, complaining to his mother, "Most of the students in the school are girls. I don't feel easy with them. How can I learn music with so many girls in the class?"
Riyadh, 14, studies in a boys-only school in Dhanmondi, Dhaka. The teenager has hardly any opportunity to interact with girls his own age. He has a younger sister, but doesn't speak to her friends. At home, he spends most of his time by himself in his room with the door shut. Riyadh feels offended when you enquire if he has a girlfriend. "I don't like the company of girls," he responds.
Bangladesh now has an increasing number of single-sex schools and colleges, and the lack of co-education is slowly, but surely, affecting the behaviour patterns of boys and girls. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics, there are 16,562 secondary schools and 2,634 colleges in the country, with an estimated student population of 9,730,805. Of these, 3,079 secondary schools and 504 colleges are exclusively for girls and have a student population of 4,974,207.
Evidently, single-sex education is the norm. Very few students attend co-ed schools and colleges. And, unfortunately, in some of these co-ed institutions, girls are not allowed to mix freely with boys. Girls spend their spare time in their common rooms and come to class only when the teachers are present. There is hardly any healthy communication or friendship between the sexes. Boys and girls rarely discuss either their lessons or other hobbies and interests with each other. Such co-ed schools and colleges lack an environment that fosters the healthy intellectual and emotional growth of their students.
Experts agree that well-implemented coeducation helps in the development of school-going children and young adults - boys and girls learn self-confidence and mutual respect. According to Farida Akhtar, Senior Consultant for the Asian Region at the US-based International Child Resource Institute, "A child goes through seven stages of development as he/she matures into an adult: physical, mental, linguistic, social, moral, intellectual and emotional. There must be a balanced growth in all these stages. Many guardians focus more on the physical and intellectual aspects of their child's growth and ignore the other sides. As a result, their children fail to attain an all-round development."
Laila Arjuman, a resident of Dhaka's Mohammadpur area, has enrolled her children - a boy and a girl - in single-sex schools. She says, "It's better for girls to stay away from boys. They need purdah (seclusion). I also want my boy to stay away from girls and concentrate on his education. It's so easy for young people to fall in love. Studying in a co-ed school with other girls may distract him from his studies."
Akhtar gently disagrees. "It's possible this boy will do well in studies," she says, "but he may lag behind in social and mental development." She points to research demonstrating that co-education alone does not necessarily encourage love affairs between boys and girls. There are other factors, such as family environment, lack of candour with parents, family and religious values.
Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, a prominent Bangladeshi intellectual and academic, supports co-education. "Co-education has evolved over the years after long experiments," he says. "It helps boys and girls grow in a family environment. Boys and girls feel they belong to a family. Boys and girls fail to know each other if they study in separate schools. That creates a curiosity about the opposite sex which may lead to violence."
According to Dr Nizamuddin, Associate Professor at the National Mental Health Institute, Dhaka, "The absence of co-education can cause social phobia, lack of confidence and negative attitudes towards the opposite sex." She adds that the lack of knowledge about the opposite sex can cause unhappiness in conjugal life and a failure to communicate with one another.
Mohammad Habibur Rahman, Principal of Dhaka University Laboratory School and College, a co-ed institution, agrees with experts who support co-education. "There are about 1,800 students here," he says," about 30 per cent of whom are girls. Barring one or two stray incidents, we have no record of any major trouble." Hasina Begum, the mother of a student at the school, concurs: "My daughter has no problem here. She considers boys as her brothers or friends."
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