‘Big mothers,’ ‘big sisters’ are impacting early childhood development of Rohingya children
In a 10-by-10 foot room, 16-year-old Mariam teaches some children, ranging from three to five years of age, using slate and chalk.
She has set up an informal kindergarten learning centre in a portion of her shelter – measuring 10 feet by 20 feet – where she has been living with her parents and a younger brother since they took refuge in Bangladesh in September 2017.
According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, more than 740,000 Rohingyas have fled to Cox’s Bazar, the southernmost district in Bangladesh that shares border with Myanmar’s Rakhine state, since August 25, 2017 to escape a brutal military crackdown on the local Rohingya Muslims based in the state.
As a Rohingya girl who never dreamt of earning a living, given the general Rohingya tradition entailing that women never step out of their homes, Mariam is now eagerly taking advantage of the opportunity to earn from her home, as a part of the Education in Emergency (EIE) project, funded by UK-based NGO Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).
“If I had to go out [of home] to teach, I would never get my parents’ permission and would not get [the opportunity for] the joyous work that is contributing to some happy moments for my neighbourhood children,” she said.
Designated as a “big sister,” Mariam is currently working as a teacher at Learning Centre 31 in Block F of Jamtoli camp in the district’s Ukhiya upazila.
“These children are really comfortable with me as they can express themselves better since I, too, am a Rohingya,” she said.
Mariam studied till seventh grade and could not continue, as there was no scope for Rohingya girls to study further (beyond Class VII) in Rakhine state.
Another teacher, Tasmeda, 30, who is a “big mother” at a nearby centre, said she was inspired to be a teacher as it would be a “good investment in the future.”
Muslima Begum, 21, a parent, said two of her children are studying at Learning Centre 33, and she had observed that her children were learning good manners.
“It was difficult to manage them at home. They were not studying at all and were roaming around all day and quarrelling with one another,” she said.
“Now they [the children] study and play together. They have learnt to greet elders respectfully. They have also been taught about cleanliness and hygiene. They now wash their hands before and after meals and after using the toilet,” she added.
How is the project conducted?
The project employs only Rohingya women and girls from Jamtoli camp to work as big mothers and big sisters.
Muslima Zannat Rima, supervisor of eight learning centres in the camp, said the criteria for a teacher are that they must have a high school education – Class VII for girls – and they must allow a centre to be set up in their shelter home.
Rima said when the outreach program took off, they received little to no warmth from the community, but with time, people understood the concept. Some 25 Rohingya women and girls sat for an exam to be one of the 10 teachers under her supervision.
EIE Coordinator Mizanur Rahman Akond said there are 50 such learning centres, and each has a big mother or a big sister.
They teach children in three shifts, where each shift has 10 students, guided by a study plan provided by VSO. A total of 1,500 children have benefited from this program, he added.
‘Not far from home’
Mizanur Rahman Akond said parents and neighbours had found the centres to be more effective as their children need not go far from home. Parents are asking for more such centres as they are secure and the children do not have to climb down the hillocks to attend formal learning centres.
VSO Bangladesh Country Director Forkhan Uddin said they had already launched an app that would be useful for the early childhood development of Rohingya children of ages three to five.
VSO is implementing the project through a local NGO. Forkhan said the three-month project started in March last year, but got an extension for its innovative approach.
Teeraphong Kunklangdone, regional media and communications adviser (Asia and Pacific) for VSO (Bangkok Hub), said the big mother and sister project is an approach where community participation is ensured, as the host community from Bangladesh plays a supervisory role and the Rohingya women are teachers.
Teeraphong said they had just launched the VSO school app. If it proves to be effective for learning and childhood development, the app might be shared with other development organizations.
91% of traumatized children recover after joining ECCE
A study titled External Evaluation of Education in Emergency Project for FDMN, by Prof Tariq Ahsan of the Institute of Education and Research (IER) at Dhaka University, found that 91% of children participating in early childhood education (ECCE) have recovered from trauma.
The study said they found in a parent opinion survey that 80% of the Rohingya children confirmed that they were in some sort of trauma when they came to Bangladesh, and 91% of them recovered from trauma after joining the ECCE process.
They interviewed 350 parents for the parent opinion survey.
The study showed that 87% of the parents, big sisters, big mothers, and “Majhis” or community leaders prefer home-based centres for younger children.
The study also highlighted that although about 99% of the centres have home-like environments, 80% of the centres have poor accessibility for students with disabilities.
However, they pointed out the absence of a child psychologist in the school as a weak point.