Students in Room to Read's Girls' Education Program in Bangladesh
“When we started the program we could not find one girl from the char islands who had passed the Secondary School Certificate exam,” said Ruksana, referring to the critical test that allows a student to advance to the 11th grade. “Most parents assumed their daughters never would.”
For Ruksana Sultana, Room to Read's Girls’ Education Program Manager in Bangladesh, there was a decisive moment in her childhood when she knew what she wanted to do. It was Education Day in Nandail, Bangladesh, when all the primary school students of the Nandail sub-district sing together to celebrate the wonders of learning.
“The smiles I saw on their faces for having gotten an education is what set me on my career path,” said Ruksana. “I understood that I wanted to see that smile again and again. And that’s why I’m now working in the education sector.”
Another big influence was Ruskana’s father, who was an education officer for the Bangladeshi government. When Ruksana was a child he would take her with him to his office where she got to interact with his colleagues and learn about their work. “I was lucky to see the educational system in Bangladesh from a young age,” she said, “that helped develop in me the desire to work in the education sector.”
Ruksana has been working at Room to Read in Bangladesh since February 2009, when the Girls’ Education Program first launched there. She spoke with us about the barriers the program helps girls overcome to get an education and some of her team’s remarkable successes.
The most vulnerable girls
Initially, the Girls’ Education Program in Bangladesh focused primarily on the char islands where some of the most vulnerable girls in the country live. Built up from fragile layers of sand and silt, char islands are at the mercy of sudden flooding and erosion, forcing families to move at a moment’s notice. This combined with a lack of physical infrastructure and government services makes life on the chars hazardous and insecure. The people of the chars are some of the poorest, most unstable in Bangladesh.
Since the average distance a child living on the chars has to travel to school is over three miles, many don’t bother going. Also, they must often cross the river to reach school, which is nearly impossible during the rainy season. What’s more, girls face security risks walking down the long, desolate stretches of sand, making parents anxious about sending them to school. Few NGOs or local government agencies ever venture onto the chars, and as a result the local communities still adhere to old traditions, such as child marriage.
“When we started the program we could not find one girl from the char islands who had passed the Secondary School Certificate [SSC] exam,” said Ruksana, referring to the critical test that allows a student to advance to the 11th grade.
“Most parents assumed their daughters never would. We wanted to show them that with the proper guidance and support these girls can do it—they can go on to tertiary school. Our challenge was not to change the statistics but to change the mindset of this community.”
A perfect score
Although girls’ enrollment in secondary education has been increasing in Bangladesh, completion rate is still poor. Early marriage, poverty, child labor and parents’ lack of awareness of the importance of girls’ education are just some of the barriers girls’ face—which goes doubly so for girls from the chars.
Over the last five years Ruksana and her team of social mobilizers and program staff have been continually supporting and motivating the girls and their parents. For instance, the team organized special learning camps for weak performers, tracked each girl’s progress and provided extra support for the harder courses, such as math and science. They also motivated the parents to provide sufficient time and support for their daughters at home.
“In one community, our social mobilizers actually convinced parents to stop early marriages,” noted Ruksana, “and not only of their daughters. These parents ended up working with us to prevent early marriage in the entire community!” Ruksana believes this is why for the first time 96 percent of the girls from the chars passed the SSC exam.
“This is higher than the countrywide pass rate of 91 percent! Five of our students received a perfect score. All of our girls have gone on to 11th grade,” she said with a broad grin. “It’s incredibly inspiring to work with these girls, to see how all the effort we put into the program has paid off and to watch each of them move forward in their lives. I am so proud of them.” What’s more, over the past five years Ruksana’s team has prevented more than 130 early marriages on chars in the Sirajganj region, thanks to their hard work—and especially that of the social mobilizers, or mentors to the girls, who are, as Ruksana put it, “working heart and soul” in these areas.
Never thought possible for a girl
If passing the SSC weren’t enough for the girls from the char islands, next year the Girl’s Education Program in Bangladesh will watch its first group of participants complete higher secondary school. Many represent firsts for their families and communities on the chars: the first to go on to tertiary school or to get a job—maybe as a teacher, a data entry person or with the military—jobs this community never thought possible for a girl.
“What makes all of this possible is our passionate, hard-working team, and the comprehensive support Room to Read provides girls to help them finish secondary education and prepare them for tertiary education or a fulfilling career,” said Ruksana. “By doing so we are improving the lives of these girls, the future of their communities and we are strengthening gender equality. Now parents are coming to us to enroll their girls in our program!”
“Ruksana by my side”
The program’s Associate Project Coordinator Ismat Ara said a good part of their success comes from the way Ruksana motivates them to overcome challenges. “I remember in 2010 the monsoon season was longer than usual and the river had risen very high so it was impossible for the children to walk to school. Finding a boat was very difficult since they were in high demand. But with Ruskana guiding us we were able to secure a long boat to transport our students to school. We called it ‘Boat to Read,” said Ismat with a smile, adding,
“Ruksana does her utmost to try and change the lives of the girls and that drives us to make it happen.”
There’s also the way Ruksana inspires her staff to challenge themselves personally, something Ismat knows well. “After joining Room to Read in 2009, Ruksana motivated me to pursue higher studies to enhance my skills and capabilities.
"I got admitted to a university for post-graduate studies in social science, which I completed last year. This has helped me in my decision making and judgment, and will help me move forward in my career. It wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t had a truly motivational leader like Ruksana by my side.”