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Staring at an uncertain future PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 04 February 2008

The government is yet to disburse the stipend money for July-December 2007 among more than 14 lakh female students in more than 19,000 secondary schools. For most the report is a damning indictment of the education sector; however, for those lakhs of students and their guardians it has the ring of an uncertain future. For want of stipend money, many guardians, especially in the cyclone Sidr-hit areas, may have to withdraw their daughters from School

Sonia Kristy

EDUCATION for all is one of the primary responsibilities of the state and the most important human development indicator. A person denied of basic education will remain illiterate and hence ignorant about his/her rights and, therefore, will not have the courage to fight for those rights and fail to become a part of a self-conscious, independent human force. Although women constitute half of the population, their potential, especially in developing countries like ours, remains severely unutilised and unrealised. However in Bangladesh, gender parity in school enrolment has been an exception. Girls not only outnumber boys in this arena but our rate of enrolment and success is considered a developmental milestone in the SAARC region. The gross enrolment rate at the primary level (grades 1-5) is close to 100 per cent, a rise from 46 per cent in 1991 (the net enrolment rate is 85 per cent), of which 47 per cent is female. Female enrolment at the secondary level (grades 6-10) has also increased quite considerably, almost doubling between 1990 and 1997 to nearly three million girls representing 48 per cent of total enrolment (Bangladesh Education Sector Review, Volume III Annexes, World Bank, June 1999).

Despite the increase in girls’ access to basic education, however, only two-thirds of all girls enrolled at the primary level finish grade five and are eligible for secondary schools and of them not all enter secondary schools. The low completion rate at the primary level is a major reason for the relatively low gross enrolment rate for girls in secondary school. Income constraints also restrict access to secondary schools for girls from poor households since costs are higher than at the primary level. Besides, access is restricted in remote and poorer areas, which are underserved because they are less likely to attract good quality public teachers as well as offer little incentive to private providers. Finally, social norms relating to early marriage and increasing vulnerability as well as lack of security for adolescent girls are strong parental incentives for non-enrolment of girls into secondary schools, or if enrolled, the non-completion of secondary schools.

Even with such constraints and obstacles we have achieved wonderful results that such a high proportion of girls would be enrolled at the secondary and higher secondary levels where women’s education is by and large ignored, if not actively discouraged. The reason, to a large extent, has been the government’s female stipend projects for secondary and higher secondary education. Under the Secondary Education Sector Development Project and the Female Secondary Stipend Project (Phase II), the female students of about 19,383 secondary schools and madrassahs in 355 upazilas are given stipend in two instalments every financial year – one from January to June and the other from July to December. The minimum criteria for a girl student to become eligible for getting the stipend are 75 per cent class attendance, at least 45 per cent marks in all the examinations and the state of being unmarried. A female student of Class VI receives Tk 25 a month and a student of Class X receives Tk 60, in addition to an additional sum to buy books and pay fees of the public examinations. As the recipients do not pay any tuition fees, the government pays a small sum to the teachers against the number of stipend beneficiaries in the respective institutions. From news reports it is learnt that the government spends more than Tk 180 crore a year on about 24 lakh students in rural areas under three female secondary stipend projects and one higher secondary stipend project — Female Secondary School Assistance Project, Female Secondary Stipend Project, Female Secondary Education Stipend Project, and (under a component of the) Secondary Education Sector Development Project.

Besides contributing to the larger reform efforts of the government in the education sector, with the objectives of improving the quality of education, sustaining improved gender equity, addressing regional and rural/urban inequities in access, etc. these stipend programmes, which also includes the payment of girl’s tuition fees, is seen as a mechanism for improving gender equity and increasing access of girls to secondary education. The specific objectives with respect to the provision of stipends to girls in secondary school are increasing girls’ enrolment in secondary schools and retaining them in secondary education; assisting them in passing the SSC examinations to enhance their employment opportunities and delaying early marriage. Besides these immediate objectives, there are a number of long-term goals:

a. Enhance and retain female students in the secondary stage and thereby promote female education;
b. Reduce population growth by motivating the stipend clientele group to refrain from marriage till completion of the SSC examination or until the attainment of 18 years;
c. Increase involvement of women in socio economic development activities;
d. Increase women’s self-employment for poverty alleviation;
e. Assist in improving the status of women in society (Female secondary school stipend programme in Bangladesh: A critical assessment, by Simeen Mahmud, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies).

It should be noted that a large number of parents send their daughters to school presuming that they would benefit from the stipend of their daughters and often treat it as an additional income, which is, of course, the basic incentive for girls attending schools. Therefore, when these students fail to receive the stipend money on time, not only their education gets hampered, their family members also get affected. This year, the month of January has already ended yet about 14 lakh female students are to receive their July-December 2007 stipend money. Similar was the case regarding the January-June 2007 instalments which were finally disbursed in late October last year. According to M Abdur Razzaq, director of phase II of the female stipend project, ‘A section of education ministry officials made unusual delay in issuing administrative orders for a quick disposal of the stipend files and hence the logjam was created,’ .

It has also been reported that the female SSC candidates under the secondary school stipend project receive an additional amount of Tk 1,000 for filling in the public exam forms and fulfilling other necessary formalities. Due to cyclone Sidr, the last date of filling up the SSC form was extended to December 10, 2007. About two lakh female students from these rural upazilas are to take the SSC exams this year and they are yet receive the promised money. The difficulties and hardship these students, most of whom come from marginalised families, faced while arranging such an hefty amount, which the government was supposed to provide, are very much understandable and raises serious doubt about the very sincerity of the incumbent government and its ability to deliver.

While these officials, who have been entrusted with the duty of facilitating smooth distribution of stipend money to lakhs of female students of thousands of higher secondary schools throughout about 355 rural upazilas, the military-controlled Fakhruddin Ahmed-led interim government has failed to demonstrate adequate enthusiasm and sincerity in resolving myriads of crisis plaguing our education sector. The government’s lack of commitment, incompetence of the officials’ concerned, bureaucratic ineptitude and lack of proper monitoring by the relevant ministry have all contributed to making our education sector as well this stipend project rather vulnerable.

There seems to be a serious lack of monitoring and review of the stipend projects which is of utmost importance to make the sustainable and successful in the true sense of the term. These projects have helped countless of girls to attain education and in the process become self-employed and lead a dignified life. These projects have helped our nation to attain the coveted gender parity in school enrolment and become hopeful of attaining women’s emancipation and empowerment — a long-cherished dream of every democratic nation. Let not any bureaucratic lethargy, incompetence of the officials concerned or the policymakers’ indifference hinder the process in any way.

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