Return to learning: A challenge for the Rohingya girls

How UNICEF, with support from GPE, works with partners to identify solutions to get Rohingya girls back to learning after two years into the COVID-19 global pandemic in Bangladesh.

April 28, 2022 by UNICEF Bangladesh
4 minutes read
Girls return to school with the support of girls-only sessions. Credit: UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Nepal
Girls return to school with the support of girls-only sessions.
Credit: UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Nepal

Two years into the COVID-19 global pandemic, education has been seriously disrupted leaving children out of learning. The closure of schools and learning centers exacerbated the challenges of girls accessing education as it increased drop out rates for girls who were already at the brink of drop out.

With school re-opening after prolonged closures, girls drop out made global and national headlines—with no exception in Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As the camps’ learning centers gradually reopened, adolescent girls were notably absent from class, worrying education providers.

Where are the girls?

The issue of low attendance of adolescent girls did not start with the COVID-19 pandemic, though the closure of schools and learning centers did not help the situation.

To better understand the circumstances around the dropout of girls, UNICEF together with the education partners consulted the Rohingya community in search of the reason across camps in 2019.

After intensive door-to-door visits, it was well understood that the community is fighting many battles and accepting Rohingya girls’ right to education is one of them.

The girls were found at home, with 11-year-olds and older, who are merely approaching adolescence phase, shouldering responsibilities to support the household, doing chores and taking care of the family.

With the disruptions in the completion of primary education, many opportunities are being taken away to prepare the girls for the lifelong journey. Little did they know about what they could become if only they could have access to education.

“As I am growing older, my opinion matters less. I must follow what my parents and community say even at the cost of education. Otherwise, I may disrespect them,” expressed Amena, hopeless about her return to school after dropping out in 2019.

Zubaida, a 12-year-old girl who once dropped out from UNICEF-supported learning centers in camp 18. Credit: UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Lateef
Zubaida, a 12-year-old girl who once dropped out from UNICEF-supported learning centers in camp 18. With girls-only sessions, she has returned to class after school reopened.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Lateef

Girls’ barrier to education in camps

According to a needs assessment from March 2019, cultural reasons accounted for 59% of girls’ absence from learning centers. What we heard from the field was eye-opening.

The community perceives learning centers to be contradictory to religious values because of the mixed seating arrangement.

Co-education may be the most ideal arrangement in any given context as education can’t be segregated based on gender, but it contradicts with the traditional gender norms and cultural practices in the Rohingya camps. The field study revealed that adolescent girls are not expected to be seen with boys in public, including in learning centers.

Girls protecting their honor by being safe at home is seen as a common notion to define girls’ role in the Rohingya community. Also, the community does not see the value of educating girls as they are to contribute at home, not in the market economy. Thus, the preference is to educate boys over girls.

While a few parents were okay with the mixed seating arrangement, a significant number of community members demanded for gender segregated seating arrangements.

Irrecoverable loss and lifelong impact

The situation worsened as the school closure continued, with the number of dropouts doubling by the time the learning centers reopened.

The biggest drawback is changing parents’ mindsets that influence their decision on girls’ access to education.

The more we delay, the more girls are put at risk of not returning to education. Out of learning, girls are more exposed to a series of protection-related issues in the absence of structured law enforcement agencies in camps.

In such conditions, parents feel unsafe keeping the young girls at home. Thus, marriage is perceived as a coping mechanism, which results in increased child marriages and health complications at this young age.

Fewer girls completing education also creates a crisis of female teachers in the teachers’ pool. This vicious cycle continues and further demotivates efforts for the cultural shift because of a lack of role models to drive the change in the community.

Community-led initiatives for bringing girls back to learning

Putting girls’ right to education at the center, UNICEF with the support from GPE works with partners to identify solutions by engaging the community. Girls-only sessions is one of the initiatives led by a community that is allowing many girls to return. The approach is well accepted and in growing demand.

“If the separate session is what it takes to bring girls back to education immediately, this is the starting point. It creates an avenue for the Rohingya community, who merely sees the value of girls’ education to think otherwise. We will continue to raise awareness on promoting girls’ education so that one day both girls and boys learn in one space. It is time taking but workable,” explains a Rohingya teacher from camp 15.

Girls’ barriers to education are multidimensional and complex in nature; thus, partners have taken barrier-based approaches that are gender and culturally responsive.

So far, 500 community volunteers are working across camps to promote girls’ education; female volunteers are walking girls to/from learning centers to help keep them safe radio shows are in development; and engaging religious leaders actively to mobilize girls is considered.

Consultations are being held with religious leaders to promote girls’ education and actively engage them to mobilize girls. Credit: UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Lateef
Consultations are being held with religious leaders to promote girls’ education and actively engage them to mobilize girls.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Lateef

Strengthening girls’ education through advancing gender equality requires long-term planning and commitment at all levels from policy makers to implementers.

UNICEF and GPE, being the champions in girls’ education globally, will continue to collaborate and advocate for Rohingya girls’ access, retention and participation in education so that resources can be directed to meet the need of the most vulnerable.

When the girls get the education they need, there is a ripple effect benefitting everyone.

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COVID-19, Gender equality
South Asia: Bangladesh

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