Indigenous children play in the grounds of St. Don Bosco Primary School in Rajshahi district of Bangladesh in this file photo. In 2015, Catholic authorities closed eight schools including St. Don Bosco that taught poor indigenous children. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Five years after Rajshahi Diocese, northwest of Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, closed down eight schools for lack of funds, hundreds of poor children lacking other educational opportunities have become daily wage workers.
Ajoy Soren, one of the affected students, studied up to grade four at St. Siro Primary School until it was shut down in 2015. The 16-year-old is now a day laborer.
Like him, some 150 students from mostly poor indigenous families who received free primary education up to grade five will not continue studying as their families are unable to pay for education.
“Only one friend is continuing studies because his father is an NGO officer with a good salary. Our parents are poor day laborers, so we could not continue studying,” he told UCA News.
Ajoy does not blame the Church for the missed opportunity but asked UCA News not to use his real name in case of a backlash from authorities.
“I think it was my misfortune. Church authorities can do nothing if they don’t have funds. If I could study, I could have a better future, but now I have to work hard to support my family,” he said.
St. Siro was among eight free schools for poor indigenous students set up by Italian Father Paolo Ciceri from the Milan-based Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).
About 500 poor children once studied in those schools, according to Poly Soren, a former teacher of St. Siro. She said most students were unable to find scholarships in other schools.
Very popular in rural communities, the schools provided free education for extremely poor indigenous children. Father Ciceri, who served mostly in northern Bangladesh from 1963 to 2017 before returning to Italy, set up the schools with funding from his family and friends.
However, as the schools had no permanent benefactors, they faced a funding crisis when Father Ciceri was transferred from Rajshahi to neighboring Dinajpur Diocese.
Rajshahi Diocese officials shut down the schools in 2015 citing lack of funds, which frustrated local communities. Officials explained that the Italian missionary had not secured ongoing support to sustain the future of the schools.
A priest with Rajshahi Diocese, who asked not to be named, said that schools including their land are property under church ownership and in some places trees have been planted to use the plots.
“The Church does not close any school intentionally and tries to reopen schools if possible. Sometimes it becomes impossible to run completely free schools due to lack of funding,” the official told UCA News.
The priest denied any clash with the missionary priest and said the lack of ongoing financial support resulted in the closures.
However, UCA News reported recently that the diocese is in a land dispute with indigenous Catholics over an attempted takeover of church land where Father Ciceri resettled hundreds of poor Santals years ago.
A government official, who recognizes the Church's contribution in the education sector, also noted that diocesan authorities could have approached the state for support in education for indigenous children.
“It would have been better if the church authority had come to the government before closing the schools. The government could assist in running those schools,” Rajshahi district assistant primary education officer Saiful Islam told UCA News.
The priest acknowledged that Rajshahi Diocese didn’t approach the government for support because it feared negative consequences.
“Once the schools started getting government funding, the Church would have been forced to accept state rules, state-appointed management committees and teachers, which could lead to loss of control and a drop in quality and reputation,” he said.
Rajshahi Diocese runs six secondary schools-cum-colleges, six junior high schools and 21 primary schools, according to church sources.
“We don’t make profits from our schools, which we could use to reopen and run closed schools. We are still trying to secure funds, so we could resume those schools one day,” the priest added.
Closure of Lighthouse School
Ritu Porna Singh is a 12-year-old Hindu girl and grade five student at Atowari K.G. School in Panchagarh, Bangladesh’s northernmost district near the Indian border.
Until last year, she studied at Nakivita Aloghor (Lighthouse) School run by Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh with funding from the European Union. It was cost free and was close to her house.
The school closed down after the Caritas project ended and the European Union decided to not to extend its funding.
Ritu now goes to a private school about three kilometers from her house riding a bicycle. It charges 200 taka (US$2.38) in monthly tuition fees.
“We need to pay tuition fees and we remain tense when she goes to school because road accidents are common. Caritas provided school essentials including books, pens and notebooks cost free, but now we need to buy everything,” Pimpy Rani Singh, Ritu’s mother, told UCA News.
Pimpy, a mother of two, noted that one third, about 100, of Caritas school students from the village no longer receive an education.
In 2012, Caritas received funding of 10 million euros ($11.4 million) from the European Union and Caritas France to offer basic education to thousands of poor children.
Caritas was entrusted with running 1,005 schools across Bangladesh that offer basic education to more than 158,000 children from communities that would otherwise have no school. Each school offered education to 30-120 students in their mother language.
Most of these schools were closed in 2019. However, with funding from Caritas and church authorities in eight Catholic dioceses, about 383 schools, mostly in remote and poorer areas, continue to operate.
Michael Mardy, Caritas Dinajpur education officer, told UCA News that 65 out of 102 such schools are still operational. He said there is no exact data on drop-outs but admitted a significant fallout.
“I visited some places where we had schools and found that the children have stopped going to government schools as these are far away and language is also a problem, mostly for ethnic indigenous students. If Caritas or the Church cannot offer education to these poor kids, they will be lost and it will be a big loss for us,” Mardy told UCA News.
The Catholic Church runs one university, 12 colleges, 579 secondary and primary schools, and 13 vocational training institutes in the country, according to the Bangladesh Catholic Education Board of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh.
Altogether, the institutes are responsible for teaching nearly 100,000 pupils a year, mostly Muslims.