A World in Transition: Women's Access to Education
The single greatest challenge that girls in a Bangladeshi society face is the lack of a gender sensitive structure. Our community members are trained from a very early age to embody certain behaviors towards girls and women that impedes on their access to agency. Women are absent from the decision making table at home, at work and in the communities. Notions of gender accountability where women are expected to live up to certain expectations of domestic, subservient and care-giving roles and behaviors are enforced at all levels of society and in every family. These are not generalizations – this is a snapshot of the world we are made to see. However, this is a world in transition.
Education systems in Bangladesh have lacked the structure that allows both men and women to learn more about the importance of gender sensitivity. Development projects are often aimed at women only. That is only half of the problem they must address. Men must be brought into the discussion. The absence of men from these educational campaigns such as the Women in Public Service Program (WPSP) and other informational programs on reproductive health and gender equality run by NGOs, fails the goal of creating an environment of dialogue which supports women’s participation in the public forum and their access to resources such as finance and education.
The current practice of disseminating reproductive health education only to women has not been effective in ensuring better planned families. The decision makers in the family, mostly elders and males are not exposed to the same information. Hence even when women do have access to the education, the implementation remains elusive – this creates further barriers for women, who need such decision making influence in order to gain access to other forums of education and participation. I volunteered with the MAMA – Aponjon Initiative in Bangladesh which is a mobile maternal health service that sends weekly text messages or phone calls to urban and rural women. This program also sends the same information to their family members and husbands and encourages family participation in the care for the expecting mother and her baby. Such initiative address the barrier that women face in the implementation of their education.
Another barrier that women face to education and public participation is on a policy level. Women are made to accept that they will be the primary caregivers in the family by the laws that govern the working forum. Policies include maternity leaves and child care services which has helped women, but this too is problematic and incomplete. There are many single fathers and caring fathers who would like to take equal or more share in care-giving: and this should be encouraged! Paternity/ Family leaves, as well as day care centers at male work places are necessary to ensure women have the opportunity and the environment to aim for more than the role of a caregiver.
Programs like the Food for Education (FFE) in Bangladesh are helping create a new forum for women’s participation by giving families incentive to send their daughters to school. As families receive food rations for enrolling and sending their daughters to school, their necessity or justification to keeping daughters at home to support family or help domestic work is removed. However, while these programs have improved women’s access to education at a primary level, there was no follow up program that ensured the education of these girls beyond primary school. Primary education did not prepare them enough to overcome the societal structures that hold them accountable to gendered behavior. They needed vocational programs and further stipends to ensure that they were educated further and were not forced to relapse into child marriage or domestic life once the rations stopped coming after fifth grade.
Microcredit programs have been successful in doing this for older women. It has given them access to vocational education, finance, and an opportunity to participate in the public forum. The program hosts borrowers in community groups where women are trained to support group members – emotionally and professionally. This is the first step to ensuring our community is composed of women supporting other women.
Women must help women climb the ladder and reach the top. This is something I learned in WPSP. There must be an active participation from women who have reached a position on the decision making table to mentor other women do the same. While there is active campaign and encourage supporting men gaining expertise and training, women must do the same. Mentees at the grassroots must also play their part and hone a relationship with these mentors.
This role model effect is very strong among women. When we see a woman as a teacher, a woman parliamentarian, a woman doing well in any field, many others dream to do the same. We have been inspired by women like Begum Rokeya to Syeda Rizwana Hasan who have advocated women’s education and participation, and must continue to do so more actively. No field must remain untouched. I went to a school named after the double Nobel Prize winning scientist Marie Curie – and I grew learning her stories of struggles, determination and success. Now at AUW I am learning much more – these stories are important, and young boys and girls must be exposed to these at a very early age for them to embody the normalization of women in the public sphere. To gain equal respect for all genders and only then will we have a structure for a gender sensitive society which will help design policies around that notion. These structures must be in place in order to aid women’s access to education.