The pandemic has caused many to drop out of school -- this could be a disaster on top of a disaster
Last week, I visited a flood-affected village on the Chauhali upazila chars of the Jamuna River in Sirajganj District. The visit was arranged by the Sirajganj-based NGO Manab Mukti Sangstha (MMS) and the Dhaka-based National Disaster Forum.
Last month, MMS and the Disaster Forum had launched an online appeal for funds to cover the costs of hygiene kits for primary school children, and the visit had been arranged so that we could meet the children who have not been to school since March this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week’s visit to Chauhali was not my first visit to see the work of MMS, which has been working for the people of the Jamuna chars for over 30 years. I first visited Chauhali in 1997 to evaluate the flood mitigation work of MMS which, at that time, was supported by Oxfam-UK. In 1999, I was there again representing the Red Cross at a time when the British TV channel, Channel-4, was making a four-part TV series entitled The Drowning Earth which was raising the alarm of global warming and climate change. The filming was done in an MMS char village.
Much later in 2008, while working with the DFID-funded Chars Livelihoods Program (CLP), I accompanied the writer Tahmima Anam to Chauhali as she had been commissioned by The Guardian to write a feature related to climate change.
The trip was again facilitated by Habibullah Bahar, executive director of MMS. Tahmima’s feature was entitled “Losing the ground beneath their feet,” and was about the precarious life on the chars as many families have to regularly shift their homes due to river erosion.
I remember that when Tahmina was speaking with a group of women, she asked them how many times the river had taken their homes. “11”, said one. “17” said another.
Char Dhitpur is the name of the char which we visited last week, and the children who we met were from Char Dhitpur Poschim Para Government Primary School. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the school had closed in March and was badly inundated and damaged by this year’s floods. There are 218 students registered at the school (103 girls and 115 boys) and four teachers (two women, two men) from the local community are posted there. The hygiene kits that are being distributed contain combs, soap, soapcases, nail-cutters, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and a cotton towel, otherwise known as a gamcha.
MMS was also distributing the World Food Program’s “High Energy Biscuits” -- one packet for every school day for the last two months. Each child was given 40 packets of biscuits. When asked, the children said they shared the biscuits with their siblings and, sometimes, they said with a smile, their grandparents.
The children voiced a strong desire to get back to school. It appeared they had started to forget some things. A Class V student could not even remember how many students had been in her class when the school closed down in March. Forgetting what they had already learnt was also emphasized at a recent Brac digital dialogue held to mark the International Day of the Girl Child.
There is an urgent need to explore ways in which schools can reopen, with district and upazila education authorities having the authority to reopen. For instance, it should be possible to open the Char Dhitpur school in the open air. Attendance times can be flexible, so that class batches can come at different times.
With increased hygiene awareness because of Covid-19, it was very disappointing to see that the school had only one toilet. I am told that a regulation exists that every school should have three toilets -- one for girls, one for boys, and one for the teachers.
When work is undertaken to repair the school and its furniture, the adequate number of toilets should be built, and also wash-basin facilities. This should be regarded as a high priority, and the local union parishad and the upazila officers should make a lot of noise until these facilities are provided in all schools, and the teaching of hygienic practices should be compulsory everywhere and at all levels of education.
Even though this monsoon has been one of the most destructive in the last 40 years, it is good to be able to report that Char Dhitpur is one of the more stable chars. In 2006/7, MMS, with the support of the Chars Livelihoods Program, had supported many poor families with plinth raising, animal rearing, vegetable gardening, and social development practices. We were told that no CLP plinths had been washed away this year, and there was no food shortage. Certainly, the children looked healthy and bright-eyed.
I am aware that I have only written about one village situation, and it would be wrong to generalize, but it is my earnest appeal to everyone connected with education to work much harder to ensure that a complete year of education is not lost by millions. My impression is that there is not enough urgency being felt in the Ministry of Education to find ways to move forward.
Officers related to education should be prepared to get their feet wet and not just work “remotely.” Too many girls are being married off early and both girls and boys are dropping out of school. This is, in itself, another disaster of monumental proportions.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.