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AASHA MEHREEN AMIN in Bangladesh –  WNN Features

New innovative flexible learning centres are helping girls stay in school

 

Dhaka: In Bangladesh, family poverty and poor quality state education forces millions of children out of primary school. Girls in particular lose out as they are often the first to be called on to get a job or help their parents at home. But a new project of flexible learning centres is hoping to change this as Aasha Mehreen Amin found when she visited two centres run by the Dhaka Ahsania Mission.

A maths class is in full swing inside a Child Learning Centre (CLC) in a slum area of Sheorapara, Dhaka City. There are four tables where students, aged eight to twelve, sit immersed in their work. Jannatul (which means ‘heavenly’ in Arabic) is a round-faced, wide-eyed twelve year-old girl wearing a threadbare shalwar kameez.

Jannatul Akter works twice as hard as many children and had to fight to come to school. Every morning, after setting up a fruit stall on the main road of Sheorapara, she comes on here to read and write in Bangla and English, study maths and take part in reciting poetry and singing and dancing.

Girl student in Child Learning Centre in Sheorapara, Dhaka City

Jannatul in class at the Child Learning Centre in Sheorapara, Dhaka City, Bangladesh. Image: G. M. B. Akash/Panos London

“I like everything about school,” she says, “the dancing, poetry, singing. Madam [the tutor] also teaches us how to stay clean and comb our hair.”

Jannatul is one of the lucky ones. Every few steps along the alleyways near the learning centre, there are clusters of little children playing in the dust. Many of the older ones say they don’t go to school.

Jannatul’s tutor first saw her working on the fruit stall when she was ten and asked her mother to send her back to primary school. Initially her mother, Tajmohal Begum, was reluctant, fearing her daughter would lose her job. “Then Madam (the school’s teacher) came and convinced me,” she says. With her husband dead, and six children, Tajmohal’s daily concerns are getting a decent meal for the family and how to provide for the future. “I have to save, and I have to give dowry for their marriages,” she says. “We have no choice.”

Girl student works at fruit stall, before and after school

Jannatul at her fruit stall where she works before and after school. Image: G. M. B. Akash/Panos London

Jannatul gets up in the early hours and works before going to school at nine, returning to the stall after school and finishing around 9pm. Dark circles under her eyes betray the long days she puts in carrying the heavy crates of fruit, which she must sort, unpack and sell. For all her hours, she takes home only 20 Taka a day, [less than 20 pence].

One day, Jannatul hopes to land a highly prized office job but she must stay at the fruit stall for as long as her family expects it. She smiles as she remembers the moment she was allowed to go to school, “Before the stall owner did not let me go to school – but then madam came and talked to him and even Ma told him, you cannot stop her from going.”

Part-time attendance at the centres gives children a fighting chance of staying in school. Professor Rezina Sultana, former principal of a teacher training college in Dhaka, says the scheme is likely to provide new opportunities for girls – “Families still have high hopes for their boys, but don’t expect so much for their daughters, so if they see something is more flexible they are willing to give their girls a chance”.

Girl student stands outside the Child Learning Centre in Sheorapara

Outside the Child Learning Centre in Sheorapara. Image: G. M. B. Akash/Panos London

The centre in Sheorapara runs from 9 to 12, while another in nearby Ibrahimpur runs from 11 to 2pm where Helena, a teacher with the project works. “Sometimes the students have to leave in the middle of the class, but we always finish the lesson the same day, so they don’t have to study at home. I can give personal attention to each student as the class size is small. In government primary schools it is impossible to do that as there are 40 to 70 students in each class. There are also some costs such as admission test fees and school uniforms that these parents cannot afford.”

To see more of this story with video and special reports link to page two below > > >