Unless we empower our girls, we can never be a healthy nation that is inclusive and equitable.
If the quality of a nation is understood by the way they treat their girls, then, we, Bangladeshis, have to up our game. Fast.
Right now, our girls are vulnerable to numerous patriarchal risks: Dowry, child marriage, domestic abuse, rape, sexual harassment, and unequal inheritance laws -- to just name a few. Girls do not have equal access to learning opportunities, health care or nutrition. Poverty makes these challenges all the more acute.
In Bangladesh, there are approximately 1.8 million extremely poor adolescent girls (HIES 2010). Their poverty will be transferred to their children if no intervention takes place. Much more needs to be done to make sure that programs, policies, and public services effectively respond to the specific needs of these girls.
Thanks to the primary school stipend and school feeding programs, primary school enrolment is high for girls. However, secondary school completion levels are low.
The secondary school stipend is not adequate to remove economic pressures and parents also fear for their girls’ safety. Thus, adolescent girls are often taken out of school to work (child labour) or help with household chores and other responsibilities.
Within a few years, they are married off. Parents pay the groom a dowry to take their daughter home, treat her as he may. She effectively becomes a household slave, deprived of free will, soon to bear children. Incidentally, the younger the girl, the lower the dowry.
Once married, girls undergo many traumas. When an adolescent girl becomes pregnant, her body tries to sustain her own growth. The in utero baby is deprived of proper nutrients. This child is then born underweight and often with various disorders. The cycle of poverty continues.
The secondary school stipend could have a positive impact in delaying child marriage, but the program covers only one million adolescents while almost five million adolescents are eligible and in need.
Poverty is man-made and can be eradicated. Imagine Bangladesh as a safe and girl-friendly nation by 2021
Ironically, the few girls who do manage to graduate from secondary school find themselves equally as vulnerable to child marriage still, since grade 10 education rarely leads to a job.
Under the wise leadership of the honourable prime minister, vocational skills development has been made a national priority. Still, women’s participation in technical and vocational skills development in Bangladesh is strikingly low, at around 10%. Special efforts are necessary to correct this gender imbalance.
One of the reasons for this low participation rate is that most vocational training institutes are located in urban areas and have no residential facilities. Girls living in rural areas have very limited access to these institutes.
Another barrier is the strong social gender role framework that limits work for girls. Carpenters, electricians, mechanics, and bus drivers are traditionally always male. Girls have less access to apprenticeship programs and trade that would give them a chance to earn their own livelihoods independent of men. Social norms need to be addressed through media and dialogue in order to open up avenues for girls.
We need to develop a digital platform where extremely poor adolescent girls may register themselves online to be linked to skills training and job placement.
Suitable training institutes and private sector partnerships need to be forged to make this platform functional. Girls finishing secondary school should be made aware of these services.
The Bangladesh garments industry is poised to grow into a $50 billion industry by 2021 and for this, the semi-skilled worker requirement is another two million people. Strategically aligning training providers with job creators can help meet this demand.
Non-garment industries should be made more gender-inclusive through regulations and quotas for women. The transport industry, for example, has almost no female employees, although women can easily learn to operate a car, bus, or truck.
Discriminatory laws that force women to depend on their husbands for their livelihoods such as the inheritance laws or special provisions act on child marriage need to be repealed.
Social norms that discriminate against women should be tackled through policies, media, and national awareness campaigns.
By giving adolescent girls the opportunity to enrol in a training program-job placement scheme, we can empower them to transform their lives and our nation. This is not only ethical but also a mandate of the Sustainable Development Goals and a matter of national pride. Poverty is man-made and can be eradicated. Imagine Bangladesh as a safe and girl-friendly nation by 2021.
Let’s make it happen.
Shazia Omar is a poverty activist and a writer, currently working as a consultant at the Social Security Policy Support Project. Find her online at www.shaziaomar.com.