Illiteracy and poverty go hand in hand in Bangladesh

Without even basic education, millions remain trapped in a hand-to-mouth existence
Illiteracy and poverty go hand in hand in Bangladesh

Poor rural children get free education at a pre-primary school set up by Italian Xaverian missionary Father Luigi Paggi in the Shyamnagar area of Satkhira district on Aug. 10, 2017. About 42 million people are still illiterate in Bangladesh, according to government data. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

Suraiya Akter grew up experiencing how her peasant parents struggled to maintain a large family in a remote village in Kurigram district of northern Bangladesh.

A few pieces of land were the only source of livelihood for the couple and their seven children, but it was never enough to feed them. The children never attended school and often worked in the fields with their parents to grow crops and vegetables.

To reduce the financial burden on the family, Suraiya was married off at 13, which is illegal under Bangladesh’s Child Marriage Restraint Act, to a man from another poor family in the village.

Husband Dulal Mian, now 42, is also illiterate and a low-income rickshaw puller. The couple struggled to get by every day, and their situation worsened when Akter gave birth to two sons in the next couple of years.

Finding no other options to change their fortunes, the couple decided to move to capital Dhaka 10 years ago, settling in Ashulia, an industrial suburb.

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Mian rented a tricycle van to earn a living, while Akter, now 36, became a sewing operator in a garment factory. Their eldest son started work as a bus conductor from early morning to midnight every day.

The family can make about 20,000 taka (US$236) a month from the three incomes, but their struggle is far from over. The size of the family increased when the couple had three daughters in the following years.

“After paying bills for rent, utilities, food and clothes, we have nothing left in our hands. Our struggle is almost the same as my parents went through,” Akter told ucanews.com.

Of their five children, only their second son enrolled at a primary school. Akter often laments that she, her siblings and four of her children were deprived of education.

“Because I am illiterate, I have faced abuses from management in garment factories, and I think my siblings have had similar experiences too. My children who don’t go to school are likely to have the same future,” she said.

Akter says their inability to read and write means they cannot get better jobs and earn more money, making it impossible to leave their lives of poverty.

“Three generations have been born and raised without education, but I will tell my sons and daughters to make sure their children get an education so that they can prosper in their lives,” she added.

Rural girls go to school in the Shyamnagar area of Satkhira district on July 16, 2015. About 26 percent of Bangladesh’s more than 160 million people are illiterate. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com) 

Education lacks funding

The case of Suraiya Akter and her family is common in impoverished Bangladesh among its population of more than 160 million.

One in every four persons is illiterate, which is 26 percent or 42 million of the population, according to the latest data from the state-run Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).

Another BBS study last year found that about 22 percent of people still live below the poverty line by earning less than US$2 per day, the international poverty threshold.

Successive governments have prioritized and increased funding for education since 1991 while pledging to ensure education for all, a U.N. Millennium Development Goal. The efforts have yielded some fruit and illiteracy dropped from 47.7 percent in 2006 to 25.9 percent in 2019.

In recent years, the government has been claiming primary school enrolment of 100 percent, but the dropout rate is still high.

The education system suffers from inadequate funding and ineffective planning, management and monitoring, educationists say.

“The government continues to claim the nation has made significant strides in education, but the BBS report does not reflect it when 26 percent of people remain illiterate. It reveals that the education system is still too centralized and urban-focused, so rural areas where most people live suffer from a lack of attention and infrastructure,” Jyoti F. Gomes, secretary of the Bangladesh Catholic Education Board, told ucanews.com. 

Gomes also believes that poverty and illiteracy are connected, so a lack of a comprehensive plan and action won’t address the root causes of both problems.

“There are poor, marginalized communities in both urban and rural areas and, without any financial incentives like loans for socioeconomic development, they cannot send their children to schools,” Gomes said.

“The government offers free education including books, but these efforts won’t encourage parents to send children to school unless their economic conditions improve.”

The education sector also suffers rampant corruption at various levels, according to Mahbubul Islam, executive director of the Bangladesh Association for Community Education.

“The government has programs and projects to advance formal and informal education, but funds often end up wasted due to corruption. Education projects are often generalized, not area-specific to address different socioeconomic barriers, so efforts are often wasted and bring no good results,” Islam told ucanews.com.

“Illiteracy is a cycle, difficult to break. Besides socioeconomic factors, there are psychological barriers, such as people’s mindset that time and energy spent on education can instead bring money from work. We need to work hard to change this mindset.”

Authorities continue to prioritize education despite various limitations, said Tapan Kumar Ghosh, director general of the state-run Bureau of Non-Formal Education.

“We have made notable progress in tackling illiteracy, but we must admit we have limitations. We have a lack of human resources and infrastructure to reach out at grassroots level, but we are trying to do the best,” Ghosh told ucanews.com.

“Eradication of illiteracy is an ongoing project and it will continue under our long-term education plan. We have a target of removing at least 21 million people from illiteracy by 2020.”

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