VALLEY FALLS, New York — Poverty limits education for women in Bangladesh. While the nation has “gender parity in primary and secondary education,” factory work replaces education for many women after secondary school. An issue that the Pathways for Promise program is combatting.
Successes in Education
Bangladesh is well-known for its successes in improving gender equality. The nation began working toward gender equality after its independence. Along with other organizations, the government implemented “stipend programs for girl students, family planning, and micro-finance” to empower women. Since then, the fertility rate went down, while the labor participation rate for women went up, reaching 36% in 2016. This is due partly to garment factories. In 2017, about 80% of garment workers were women. Having a job is “a repellent against early marriage” and gives women power over income, which leads to “decision-making power at home, voice in the social sphere and self-esteem.”
Setbacks in Education
At the same time, there is widespread recognition that Bangladesh still has a long way to go. More than half of Bangladeshi girls marry under 18. In addition, Bangladesh has major issues around women’s employment, despite more women joining the workforce. Very few women start their own businesses or reach the highest-level jobs. Only 7% of Bangladesh’s entrepreneurs are women. In 2017, only 5% of the top managers at Bangladeshi companies were women.
In garment factories specifically, women are unlikely to gain higher-level jobs because they lack the education needed. Yet many women seek jobs at garment factories precisely because they cannot afford to stay in school. Rubina Yeasmin, who the Guardian featured in 2016, felt pressured to abandon her education after her father’s death and her mother began to struggle to support the family. Yeasmin told the Guardian, “my uncle said I must leave school and get married.” She fought to complete her education and was able to continue. However, after graduating, she got a job in the garment industry to support her brother’s schooling with her wages. Garment workers like Yeasmin have barely any control over working conditions and may face discriminatory behavior and sexual harassment at the factories.
Education for Garment Workers
Pathways for Promise is promoting higher education for women in Bangladesh, particularly garment workers. The Asian University for Women (AUW) opened in Chittagong in 2008 and aims to break down gender inequality in higher education and teach women to be “leaders and change agents.” It describes itself as providing “American-style liberal arts and sciences education.” It offers five majors, as well as an array of supportive resources and enrichment opportunities. AUW is also keen to educate first-generation women students who are the first in their families to get a university education.
Pathways for Promise is directed at such women. It is only open to students who come from challenging backgrounds, including garment factory workers. It is essentially a preparatory program for university that lasts one year. Students take English classes and pursue training in other areas such as computing and martial arts. They also have access to support like group study sessions and peer and professional mentorship. After Pathways for Promise, students complete another year of pre-university preparation called Access Academy and then attend AUW for three years.
Mowmita Basak, the program’s founder, told Reuters that students in Pathways for Promise get a full scholarship for their five-year-long course. Moreover, employers of garment factory workers have to continue paying them while they study. This makes college possible for women from low-income families who depend on their earnings.
Pathways for Promise student Sonia Gomes talked about the program while speaking to Reuters’s Nita Bhalla. She said, “I expect it will change my life. I plan to become a businesswoman and collaborate with other garment workers to ensure their rights are respected.” Another student, Shahnaz Khanam, has a similar aspiration. She is featured on the Pathways for Promise brochure, stating that she wants “to improve the ready-made garment industry from the inside.”
The Asian University for Women is also impacting views on education for women in Bangladesh. Sonia Akter was studying at AUW, although not through the Pathways for Promise program when The Guardian wrote about her in 2016. Before her success became clear, “members of the community criticized my mother for allowing me to go,” she remembered. “The same people who used to believe that educating girls was pointless are starting to want the same for their daughters.”
Pathways for Promise is a small program. Only 22 of 653 prospective students received entry into its first intake in 2016. However, it created valuable opportunities for women who work in the garment industry to pursue higher education and craft change in the world around them.
– Victoria Albert