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Poor students battle Covid-19’s sweeping toll across Bangladesh

At least 47,414 girls became victims of child marriage while 77,706 children became day laborers, official data reveals

Students arrive to attend their classes at the Rajuk Uttara Model College in Dhaka on Sept 12, 2021, as Bangladesh schools reopened after 18 months in one of the world's longest shutdowns due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic

Students arrive to attend their classes at the Rajuk Uttara Model College in Dhaka on Sept 12, 2021, as Bangladesh schools reopened after 18 months in one of the world's longest shutdowns due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Munir Uz Zaman / AFP)


Published: February 01, 2023 12:21 PM GMT

Updated: February 01, 2023 12:23 PM GMT

Seventeen-year-old Tania Khatun suffered a major setback due to the Covid-19 pandemic as it not only disrupted her schooling but caused her poor parents to marry her off early.

Khatun, a student of Rajapur high school in Bangladesh’s Natore district, now regrets not being able to write her secondary school certificate examination this year.

“I got married in January 2021. The school was shut down due to the pandemic and no one knew how long the closure would last. So my parents forced me to marry against my will,” she told UCA News.

Khatun’s is not an isolated case in Bangladesh, where early marriage was the most common stumbling block for girls’ education even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the government report released in August 2022, at least 47,414 girls were victims of child marriage and 77,706 children became laborers in 2021. The data was compiled based on information gathered from only 11,769 of the country's 20,960 secondary schools.

Khatun was in grade nine when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and feels that had her school not closed she could’ve continued her studies.

“At least, I could have made the family understand and continue studying,” she says almost drawn to tears.

The scale of the disruption caused by the pandemic in the South Asian nation was much more devastating as evident from the available data.

The Ministry of Education shut down all educational institutions on March 17, 2020, to be partially reopened on Sep. 12, 2021. Schools remained closed for a record 543 days.

Some 1.77 million students in Bangladesh dropped out of primary and secondary schools during 2020-21, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics and the Directorate of Primary Education.

The dropout rates, forcing thousands to become child brides and child laborers, reflect the massive learning setbacks, especially for poor children like Khatun who not only suffered due to the closing of schools but also due to their families’ income losses and the overall chaos and fear in their daily lives.

Fortunately for Khatun, her husband and in-laws have agreed to let her pursue studies after the enforced break of nearly three years. She has decided to go back to school, and although it is a difficult task she is determined to appear for the exam next year.

“I know it is going to be very tough but my husband has assured me to help. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are sympathetic too. It is going to cost us about 2000 taka (US$19) but my husband has agreed to pay,” Khatun added.

Her father, Taijul Islam, is relieved. The 48-year-old runs a small grocery store earning around 15,000 taka (US$141) a month.

“The Covid-19 pandemic hit us hard. I was barely able to feed my family of five. There was terrible uncertainty about the future when a marriage proposal came for my daughter," he said.

Islam said he agreed to marry her without even thinking about it.

Khatun’s husband, Sharif Ahmed, 28, is a graduate and works for a pharmaceutical company as a medical promotion officer making around 50,000 taka (US$ 470) a month.

“As much as I suffered from not being able to teach my daughter, I am happy now because she will be able to study again. Thanks to my son-in-law,” Islam told UCA News.

No such luck for Antar Tudu who regrets skipping the secondary school certificate examination last year.

“If only I could have found the time to study and pass the exam I would have been in college like my friends,” he told UCA News

Instead, the 18-year-old school dropout is now working as a day laborer.

Tudu, who lives in Osmanpur village in Dinajpur district, used to study at the local St. John Mary Vianney High School run by the Catholic Church.

“I started working as a day laborer alongside my father to ensure there was enough food to feed all of us. Not that we found work every day, but we managed to survive those tough times,” Tudu says.

The family comprising his parents and three siblings couldn’t have survived with father Jibon Tudu’s monthly income of 14,000 taka (US$132).

“It was a very difficult situation. Lack of work, inadequate wages and insufficient food meant that our family of six was staring at starvation every day,” recalls the father.

Fortunately, the father-son duo managed to find sufficient work to keep themselves alive.

“Unfortunately, he could not continue his studies,” the father regrets.

Tudu says he could’ve worked harder to catch up with his studies and given the exam.

“But then, here I am reduced to working as a laborer,” he said as if resigned to his destiny.

Post Covid-19 pandemic, at least five Catholic Church-run educational institutions confirmed that students were returning to schools and colleges.

The Catholic Church in Bangladesh runs a university, 13 colleges and 580 primary and secondary schools, providing education to an estimated 100,000 students, most of them Muslims.

Father Johon Mintu Ray, headmaster of the St. Louis High School in Natore, told UCA News that only two of the 40 students who had dropped out during the pandemic had returned to the classrooms.

“The girls are married off at a young age while the boys have left the area for another place most probably in search of a livelihood. We’re working out a plan to have them back and make alternative arrangements for them to catch up with their studies,” he said.

Holy Cross Brother Ranjan Purification, the headmaster of Don Bosco High School of Bandarban, said a number of students had moved to government-run schools, where education was free or cost much less.

The Ministry of Education is considering making education up to grade 12 free for all in view of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Right now primary education in the country is free for all while girls get free education up to grade 12.

Studying in private schools and colleges costs anything from 100 taka (US$0.94) to 10,000 taka (US$94) depending on the courses and location – city, town, or village.

Sharif Hossain has enrolled his son in Don Bosco High School and pays a monthly fee of 300 taka (US$ 2.82) though it would cost him only 10 taka (US$ .094) at a government-run school nearby.

“Missionary schools do not compromise on the quality of education. I myself am a student of a missionary college and would prefer my son studies here, especially after the tough times our education sector has gone through due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” he told UCA News.

Sister Mabel Rozario, the headmistress of St. John Mary Vianney High School, though said the long closure of schools has had an adverse impact on students, their families and teachers.

“There is delayed learning as children have fallen behind academically. An average student lost more than a year of schooling, And, the online education, besides an auto-promotion policy adopted by the government, has affected the standard of education badly,” she told UCA News.

The auto-promotion policy meant promoting children in primary classes to higher classes without caring for their actual grades in exams.

Sister Rozario also pointed to the rise in addiction to modern gadgets among the students, which was causing them to be restless and distracted in classrooms.

The Bangladesh Catholic Education Board confirmed that the dropout rates were high. Even most students returning to classrooms have also been severely affected by the fallouts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Board’s Secretary Joyti F. Gomes told UCA News that the situation “is much worse in rural areas and is causing huge damage to the quality of education.”

The Catholic institutions are working on a strategy to reduce the loss of students and improve learning, Gomes added.


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