Bangladesh, home to tens of millions of poor people, has been quite successful over the last few decades in bringing children to school through various initiatives, including distribution of free textbooks and stipends. But the achievement is on the verge of being lost due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Many children have left the cities due to their parents losing income. Some have been forced to quit their studies and get married, work in factories or become automotive helpers as a result of economic hardships. Many others have lost interest in their studies because of the long shutdown of educational institutes.
There are currently no statistics available on the estimated dropout rates. But Rasheda K Choudhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education, fears the overall figure may rise to 40 percent when the schools reopen.
Shilpi Akhtar is one of the students who will not be returning to school. The family of the 12-year-old girl married her off due to financial troubles.
"I wanted our daughter to become a doctor or lawyer. But we are poor. After her father lost his job, we were left with no other options but to marry her off,” Shilpi’s mother Hajera Begum told bdnews24.com.
“Emon”, a 14-year-old boy residing at a slum in Dhaka’s Mirpur, had been a student of a community school with free education for non-locals.
He had to join an embroidery factory after his mother lost the job of a housemaid and his father was sacked by a shop.
“I have to work 12 straight hours. When will I study?” asked Emon.
The father of teenager Surovi Akter in Gazipur is a rickshawpuller while her mother is a farm labourer.
As her parents’ income shrank during the pandemic, she had to take a job at a readymade garment factory to help her family while waiting for the HSC exams.
“I need to work for food,” she said.
Surovi hailed the government decision to scrap the exams and evaluate the students on the results of their previous tests.
“I will at least have a certificate now. Otherwise I would not return to college. I may resume study if I get help,” she said.
Siam Islam Sajib, a sixth-grade student of Dhaka Ideal Preparatory School, has become addicted to video games at shops in his neighbourhood amid the shutdown of schools. He had taken up a job to finance his addiction but later quit after falling ill.
“Day by day he is drifting away from his studies. Now, he takes money from his father to go to the store and play. Even if schools only remained open for two days, children would have been fine. It will be impossible to send him back to school if there is a further delay in the opening. He is also not participating in online classes as we do not have a suitable device,” said his mother Amena Begum.
The government is broadcasting lessons on television to keep the students engaged as schools have remained shut for around seven and a half months due to the pandemic.
However, a recent survey by BRAC found that 56 percent of the students in the country are staying out of television classes.
“Many will drop out of primary schools due to declining family income, food and health insecurity. Scores will start working to earn a livelihood. Child marriages will come into play in secondary schools,” said Rasheda.
The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education had jointly stated in an action plan on COVID-19 released last May that dropouts at the primary and secondary levels would increase due to the closure of educational institutions.
The ministries also feared a rise in child marriage and labour due to a decline in incomes among households.
The crisis is now global. A report published by Save the Children last July revealed 9.7 million children worldwide were at risk of not returning to classes, many of whom will be victims of child marriage.
Kamal Hossain, an education adviser at Save the Children, thinks many will drop out due to child marriage, economic crisis and long absence from schools in Bangladesh.
The UNICEF said in a study in July that COVID-19 had deprived at least 40 million children worldwide of access to early childhood education.
In South Asia, many of the 430 million children are at risk of dropping out due to the closure of schools, the agency said in April.
In addition, a joint report by the International Labour Organization and UNICEF said the COVID-19 crisis has put millions of children at risk of being forced into labour.
The economic crisis as well as the dropout rate would worsen in the aftermath of the pandemic, said Iqbal Hossain, a UNICEF education expert. A large group in the country is always at the risk of dropping out. There have been no changes in their conditions in the last five years. This group is comprised of people who are financially weak.
“As much as we say primary education is free, it still costs the parents. If the children are sent to work instead of school, they can earn some money which is a big support for many families. This had been going on before the pandemic and will now increase even further. With the decline in income and the closure of schools, child marriage will increase. More boys will start working,” he said.
Remote learning exposes underlying social issues in Bangladesh: dropouts, inequality
Rasheda said it is necessary to find out the number of students dropping out before the next phase of action.
"An incentive package is needed for education. The students have to be brought back and alternative lessons have to be arranged for them.”
If others go to school in the morning shift, the ones lagging behind will have to attend both the morning and afternoon shifts, she said. Increased school hours and reduced the holidays can also be an option, she said.
"We want the children to go back to school and the return has to be safe. We have to work on finding a way to get them back to school by following all kinds of hygiene rules.”
A lot of damage has been done to children's education and it will be very difficult to recover from it, said Kamal. This will require some community awareness campaigns. We are highlighting these issues in our 'Safe Back to School' activities.
The government, however, is prioritising the challenge of reopening the schools over the imminent dropout crisis, according to Mohibul Hassan Chowdhoury Nowfel, deputy minister for education.
“We have to reopen the schools right after the winter,” he said.
Increasing stipends and scholarships after the reopening will bring the students back to school, he believes.
The government has to fund construction of unnecessary school buildings under socio-political pressure, even from MPs, said Nowfel.
“We can redirect the funds to increase stipends in the secondary education development program and train those who have fallen behind,” he said.
The National Education Policy of 2010 called for taking necessary steps to quickly reduce the dropout rate and ensure within 2018 that no student leaves before completing eighth grade.
Despite the decline in dropouts in the last few years, as per the government calculations, 17.9 percent students left the primary schools and more than 35 percent high schools last year.