Two children run through a submerged field in Satkhira district of Bangladesh. Millions of children and adults in Bangladesh and South Asia don’t have access to education and remain illiterate. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Clutching books on their chest or with bags on their back, children heading to schools and returning home are beautiful everyday scenes to watch in urban and rural Bangladesh.
But not all children are lucky enough to be a part of this eye-soothing scene as going to school to get an education is a dream for millions in this South Asian country.
From urban shanty towns to impoverished rural regions, countless children grow up without formal and non-formal basic education as their potential to become an asset for society and the nation is lost forever.
As the world marks International Literacy Day on Sept. 8, the situation in Bangladesh is alarming. Officially, 25 percent of Bangladesh’s over 160 million people are illiterate and unable to read and write in Bangla, the national language, according to data from Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. The actual figure of illiteracy is presumed to be much higher.
UNESCO defines literacy as “the ability to understand what one reads and writes in their first language and the ability to keep day-to-day accounts related to household income and expenditure.”
The scenario comes against the backdrop that all successive governments since 1991 have prioritized education and allocated significant budgets, but eradication of illiteracy is still a long road ahead.
The ruling Awami League, in power since 2008, vowed to attain 100 percent literacy by 2014, but it didn’t happen. The government adopted its National Education Policy 2010 to serve the purpose, yet it remains unfulfilled.
According to data from the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education, the literacy rates in urban and rural areas were 81.7 percent and 67.3 percent respectively in 2019.
This gap shows impoverished rural areas have more illiterate people than urban areas, detailing a degenerating connection between poverty and illiteracy in a country where one quarter of the population live below the poverty line.
The government boasts of 100 percent primary school enrolment every year, but it makes little sense as the dropout rate is high — about 18 percent before completion of primary level and over 30 percent before completion of secondary level.
While primary education is free in government schools, not all school-age children have access to such schools. Most dropouts occur when poor parents need to pay for schooling of their children at secondary level.
In rural areas, a host of driving factors drive the staggeringly low rate of literacy including extreme poverty, natural disasters, unemployment, lack of awareness, scarcity of good schools and teachers and poor implementation and inadequate monitoring of state-run education projects.
The state-run Bangladesh Non-Formal Education Bureau (BNFE) runs a basic education program targeting 4.5 million people above the age of 15 across the country. Education experts have questioned the success of the project as many students were still not able to read and write properly.
In areas with indigenous populations, there is little to no support for mother-language education for children from ethnic communities for whom Bangla is close to a foreign language. The issue has been overlooked for years and thousands of ethnic children have missed out on a proper education or simply didn’t attend schools due to difficulties.
Up until 2019, the government and NGOs published textbooks in five indigenous languages and another five are in the pipeline.
Without tackling such root causes it is simply impossible to eradicate illiteracy. In addition, government and non-government agencies often lament a lack of funding for education projects.
In 2019, Catholic charity Caritas had to close down Lighthouse, a highly popular free education project for more than 100,000 poor rural children, after the European Union, its main funder, decided not to extend its funding.
This is not just frustrating but also discouraging for campaigners championing rights to education for all, a UN Millennium Development Goal.
South Asian scenario
South Asia is home to about half of the world’s poor, so it is not unexpected that it has nearly half of the global illiterate population. World Atlas notes that 28 percent of more than 1.8 billion people in South Asia are illiterate.
UNICEF says that 11.3 million children at primary level and 20.6 million children in lower-secondary level are out of school in South Asia. The agency noted that teacher-based and rote-based classrooms as well as natural hazards, political instability, civil strife, rising extremism, lack of public finance and poor quality education are the main barriers to the learning environment in South Asian countries.
The situation is likely to get worse due to Covid-19. Save the Children warned that globally about 10 million poor children are likely to drop out because of the pandemic.
Church and education
For the Catholic Church, education is one of its major ministries across the globe. In Bangladesh, the Church runs one university, about 20 colleges and over 500 primary and secondary schools, serving an estimated 100,000 pupils, mostly non-Christians.
Caritas was among the first NGOs to adopt highly laudable mother-tongue education for indigenous children.
In general, Catholic education institutes have special considerations for Christian students, but often “the option for the poor” is not an issue for them. Many poor Christian families, mostly from indigenous groups, simply cannot afford to study in a prominent church school.
There have been allegations of negligence toward poor indigenous Christian children. In 2015, Rajshahi Diocese abruptly shut down five free primary schools for poor children due to a funding crisis. The same year, a study found high literacy in the Bengali community and a low rate among indigenous people.
Such cases raise a question about whether the Church’s education policy is fully inclusive and supportive for all, especially poor and marginalized groups. It is high time to review the policy and make amends.
Education is a basic human right, but it is an everyday struggle for millions in Bangladesh, South Asia and across the globe.
Governments, private organizations, international communities and the Church should rethink their approach to lifting those at the bottom rung of society to help them overcome illiteracy and have an education that will improve their lives.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.