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Girls belong in the classroom: Making education more inclusive in Rohingya refugee camps – Bangladesh

Quality and equality take priority in drive to increase number of Rohingya adolescent girls in school

Rahima Akhter* would do anything to protect her children in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where they live in temporary structures crammed among strangers. Her main concern is for her daughter’s safety and dignity. Rahima used to think it was better to keep 14-year-old Nurkolima* at home than let her go to school where she might be the target of unwanted male attention. If protecting Nurkolima meant sacrificing his education, so be it.

Rahima herself was sexually harassed as a child in Myanmar. When her parents heard about it, they considered it such a scandal that they married her off as quickly as possible. The memory, the humiliation of it all, still haunts her.

“When a girl hits puberty, she shouldn’t be allowed out. Boys and girls should not spend time in the same classroom as it can lead to bad things,” says Rahima, explaining a widespread perception shared by many Rohingya parents in the camps.

Rohingya refugee camps are home to more than 400,000 school-age children, half of whom are girls. Learning is vital to their well-being and future prospects, but girls often face greater barriers to education than boys, due to social and religious norms that limit the time they can pass outside the house and with whom they mix.

As a result, UNICEF and its partners have worked closely with the Rohingya refugee community to convince parents like Rahima of the lasting benefits of sending their adolescent daughters to school.

Barriers to education for Rohingya refugee girls

The education of Rohingya refugee children is provided by 3,400 learning centers – 2,800 of which are supported by UNICEF – spread across the camps. Centers that teach English, Burmese, math, science and life skills are in demand: 80% of Rohingya children aged 6-11 are enrolled in learning centers with an enrollment rate as high for girls as for boys.

But data shows that the gender gap becomes wide as girls get older, with significant numbers of Rohingya refugee girls dropping out once they hit puberty – around the age of 12 to 14.

UNICEF and partners recently went door-to-door, consulting with Rohingya families to understand the factors preventing girls from attending learning centres.

Parents said sending teenage girls to learning centers was not culturally appropriate. They believe that girls this age are too old to learn and should not be seen in public spaces with boys.

Moreover, many parents do not see the point of educating girls, who are expected to help their mothers at home before they marry and have families of their own – unlike boys who are encouraged to go out into the world. to earn their living.

“Girls over the age of 12 are supposed to stay at home. They take care of younger siblings and cook for the family,” Rahima explains, referring to the gender stereotypes still prevalent in her community.

“My mother didn’t go to school, neither did my friends. Like the other girls, I just followed the rules of society.

Rohingya parents also cited concerns about the safety of their teenage daughters in the camps as a reason for keeping them at home. Yet girls who stay at home are more vulnerable to the risks of early marriage, early pregnancy, gender-based violence and sexual exploitation.

Creative approaches to learning for female students

Since November 2021, UNICEF and partners have been piloting a project to provide Rohingya refugee children with a formal and standardized education based on Myanmar’s national curriculum. As a member of Myanmar Pilot ProgramUNICEF supports girls-only classes recognizing that many Rohingya parents prefer this for their daughters.

“In 2019, I started attending a learning center but stopped the same year. My body had changed and I no longer felt comfortable being in the same room with boys. Madame came to tell us that from this year, the learning center has a separate class for girls. My mother liked this new arrangement and allowed me to resume my studies”,

Rajuma, 13, from Camp 17

UNICEF is also working with the community to mobilize Rohingya chaperones to accompany the girls to and from the learning centers.

Classes at UNICEF-supported learning centers are led by a Bangladeshi teacher from the host community and a Burmese language instructor from the Rohingya community.

There is evidence of the positive effects of female teachers in improving girls’ learning. Given the shortage of qualified teachers among Rohingya refugees, the recruitment and training of new female teachers, as well as the continued professional development of existing teachers, are priorities for UNICEF.

“We have put a lot of effort and resources into prioritizing girls’ safety, protection and learning. The problem is multi-layered, and we need to consider cultural factors and initiate educational activities that are accepted and supported by the Rohingya community,” says Dr. Ezatullah Majeed, Head of UNICEF Cox’s Bazar Field Office.

Community support is essential

To ensure lasting change, it is essential to involve community members.

UNICEF not only mobilized hundreds of Rohingya volunteers to speak to their neighbors and friends about the importance of girls’ education, but also enlisted the help of 300 religious leaders. Armed with a megaphone, they are often seen crossing the camps to spread the message that all girls have the right to go to school to build a better future.

Such efforts transform the lives of girls like Nurkolima.

“I didn’t send my daughter to a learning center before. Now I understand the importance of studying. It’s too late for me, but I want a good future for my daughter. She must be a good student, so she can become a teacher, or get another job,” Rahima says now.

“Boys learn, why can’t girls do the same? It’s good for them. »

Nurkolima is now enrolled in a UNICEF-supported learning center and has started studying the Myanmar curriculum. Seeing opportunities open up for her daughter made Rahima reflect on her own life. After being married so young, she became pregnant and never had the chance to study. It’s one of his biggest regrets.

“If I could study when I was young, I would be a teacher now, earning money for my family. I didn’t know any better at the time,” says Rahima.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.