Winning the War on Illiteracy in Bangladesh

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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Eradicating poverty has become a top priority of the Bengali Government. Central to the poverty reduction initiative is the government’s efforts to eliminate illiteracy in Bangladesh.

In 1971, Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan. Since then, it has experienced a gauntlet of political, economic and climatic crises which have left the country with little room for real development. Despite all of these challenges, the government and its developmental partners have exerted a commendable effort in reducing illiteracy in Bangladesh.

Upon obtaining independence, Bangladesh had a diminutive literacy rate of 17.6 percent. Though the initial situation was bleak, the literacy rates of adults (ages 15 and above) had increased to 29.2 percent by 1981. Following this report, literacy continued to gain momentum and over three decades later, Bangladesh has reached an adult literacy rate of 61.6 percent, according to UNESCO data.

In connection with literacy, gender equality in schools was absent in the first years of Bengali liberation. Even by 1981, the disparity between genders in literacy was considerably polarized with men at 40 percent and women at 18 percent. This gap has narrowed gradually until 2015, when it was found that women had ascended to a literacy rate of 58 percent—just trailing the male literacy rate of 65 percent.

Though there is much to be done towards educating its population, the World Bank has praised the literacy growth that Bangladesh has experienced in the last four decades, especially considering the context of troubles the nation has faced.

One of the more recognized contributors to this growth is the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). BRAC is a non-governmental organization that was created in the early days of Bengali independence and has had a key impact on the Bangladesh Government’s Education for All (EFA) initiative.

Originally designed to assist refugees returning from India, BRAC launched an education program in 1985 which focuses on gender equality in schools and education for the poor, for unemployed populations, for ethnic minorities and a number of other disadvantaged groups.

BRAC’s education program (BEP) is the largest private secular education system worldwide. The organization was recently recognized for its significant contributions towards the Millennium Development Goals for 2015 in Bangladesh. Two of the achieved goals were directly related to the expansion of literacy.

The Female Stipend Program (FSP), initiated in the early 90s, has likewise been successful. Also known as the Female Secondary School Assistance Program (FSSAP), this program has allowed for a greater enrollment of female students through tuition stipends, and has improved the quality of schools through teacher training programs and the establishment of water and sanitation facilities. In just 14 years the enrollment of girls in Bengali schools increased from 1.1 million to 3.9 million.

Additional support for literacy growth has come from the Bangladesh government in recent years. Beginning in 1974, government-appointed education commissions struggled to form a consolidated and durable national education policy.

The first commission compiled a proposal that emphasized a secular education system, work-related instruction and educating women, but this plan was never implemented. Many other proposals followed, but they all came to naught due to governmental strife and the inability to come to a consensus on educational policy.

Finally, relative stability in the government was established and in 2010, educators and politicians were able to come to a consensus on educational policy.

Bangladesh still has much to accomplish in the eradication of illiteracy. Yet education in the country is gaining momentum and at the current rate of progress, it is projected that illiteracy in Bangladesh will fall below 10 percent by 2050. Increased literacy is expected to have many positive effects on the country, not the least of which is a brighter future for all.

Preston Rust

Photo: Flickr

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