With floods playing havoc with the earnings of her family, Mazeda Akhter Jharna of Sunamganj’s Dowarabazar pulled the plug on her plans to study and took up a job as a house help in Sylhet. She returned home eight months later but never to her school.
Her mother Zulekha Begum said Mazeda’s father works at a rice mill and earns Tk 5,000 per month, with which they can barely buy food. So, they also sent their youngest son Shahinur Akhter off to work at a farm after he completed primary education.
Things would not have been so worse had the family not lost everything to the recurring floods exacerbated by the runoff from heavy rains across Indian mountains rushing downstream, lamented Zulekha.
“Floods washed away our house. We ended son and daughter’s studies to send them to work hoping they’ll bring in some money.”
Bangladesh, one of the countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, regularly experiences floods and other natural calamities that drive the poor to extreme poverty, forcing their school-going children to put down their books, tuck away their school uniforms and take a job.
Dipak Ranjan Das, the headmaster of Dasher Bazar High School in Moulvibazar, pointed out how difficult it is to bring these children back to classrooms.
“The parents now send their children to repair homes or work in crop fields. The children are now working to earn their own bread.”
Dipak, who has been in the teaching profession for three decades, thinks calamities and poverty have pushed the disaster-stricken areas behind in education compared to other regions.
The number of students is shrinking by the year due to the floods, according to him. “Many of our students get into work [to support their families] because of poverty created by natural disasters. Some work as bus driver’s assistants, others in stores. They aren’t coming back to school.”
According to a report by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics or BBS, flooding causes the most damage to education in the country and the children in Sylhet Division suffer the most.
As much as 5 percent of the students left Dipak’s school and he thinks the figure is higher in areas hit harder by recent floods.
The BBS report, which was released in June, says more than a million students were forced to stop going to school due to calamities in the six years from 2015 to 2020.
As much as 17.91 percent of them are from Sylhet Division, followed by 14.73 percent from Rangpur and 14.28 percent from Dhaka.
Altogether 369,865 of these children aged 5-17 years left their schools in this period, with 67.98 percent of them below 12 years of age and almost 98,844 of them from Sylhet.
Flooding was the reason for the discontinuation of studies for 70.53 percent of the children in these six years, while 10.72 percent were hit by tornadoes and 5.37 percent by waterlogging.
The BBS reported that the collapse of road communication prevented 56.6 percent of the students from attending school and 24.17 percent were afflicted by illness or injury. Infrastructural damage to institutions kept another 7.7 percent out of school.
Other reasons include ever-dwindling income of families, schools being washed away, books getting ruined and displacement.
More than 5,000 educational institutions had to be shut down due to the floods in the northeast in June this year that damaged the learning of at least 600,000 students at only secondary levels.
WHERE ARE THE STUDENTS GOING
Flash floods inundate educational institutions in the wetlands Haor region every year while the unaffected are used as shelters. In any case, it cuts off students from their studies in the region and many fail to return to classrooms even after things return to normal.
Faruk Ahmed, an assistant teacher at Bakal Jura Nayapara High School in Netrakona’s Durgapur, said around 50-60 percent of the students have returned to classes after the region recovered from the recent floods.
He also pointed out that the pack of students is growing smaller due to the calamities becoming more frequent. “The harvest was heavily damaged in the flooding. So the students are working in their fields.”
“We ask the parents to send [their children] to school. They fall in line for some days but stop doing it when things take another wrong turn.”
Faruk said they were able to hold some exams after the floods ended. Almost half of the 1,200 students of the schools were able to sit for their first-term exams.
Out of 218 students in 10th grade, 20 missed the registration for SSC exams.
“Parents married off the girls and most of the boys left work at garment factories. People here are poor, so they send the boys off to work. The parents are not aware at all.”
The teachers say the disaster-hit areas have fallen behind economically trying to deal with calamities for years and the poor are slipping into extreme poverty.
The education of Humayra Jannat Khadiza, an SSC candidate from Himmater Gaon village, ground to a halt due to the financial crisis.
Her mother Alima Begum is working in people’s houses to mitigate the crisis while Humayra takes care of the family at home.
“Her father can’t provide for her studies as he doesn’t have any permanent income. It's tough to sustain a family with four children. So I don’t send Humayra to school anymore,” said Alima.
Emdadul Haque, a senior teacher at Sonapur Model High School in Dowarabazar, fears that education faces bigger losses due to the damage caused by floods this time around.
He mentioned that many students in his area lost their books and notes to the flood and that two students died on Jun 16.
Emdadul, a resident of Sunamganj town who gave a single name, has to traverse four bridges to reach Dowarabazar. The latest spell of floods damaged the bridges and made it difficult for people to move around.
“Many students arrive from 4-5km away. But the methods of travelling are no longer the same since the floods hit. So many students are not coming at all.”
Blaming post-disaster poverty for high dropout rates, Emdadul said he thinks the number of students leaving school will rise to 15-20 percent from 5 percent this year.
“The student who came first in the ninth grade was married off in secret by her parents. The reason is poverty. They think marrying her off will save the money to sustain her.”
MORE BOYS DROPPING OUT?
Emdadul also pointed out that the girls might be dropping out due to child marriage but many boys have simply stopped going to school.
“The percentage of boys is going down in the school. As many as 75 of 100 students in a class are girls. The boys are not attending school after primary education.”
He explained that parents see “no use” for studies and think the family will fare better if the children assist in their croplands. “Another thing they think is that girls get jobs now and boys don’t.”
According to the BBS, 51.85 percent of the one million dropouts were boys from 2015-2020. The report attributed the higher number of girls attending schools to more boys dropping out due to natural disasters while government scholarships helped girls to return to classrooms.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
Emdadul is positive that government incentives for the poor and meritorious students will bring them back to classes while an allocation for uniforms, shoes, copies and stationary will help the cause.
Professor Fahima Khatun, former director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education or DSHE, said a proposal to give annual cumulative holidays at a time during flooding in the Haor areas never met any ends.
“Along with the government, the rich also have to stand beside these poor families. The teachers have to take special care of their children and compensate with extra classes.”
Abul Kalam Azad, assistant professor of Dhaka University’s Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, holds damaged infrastructure responsible for a big portion of the dropouts.
People travel on boats when the wetland areas go underwater, so the impoverished families do not send their children to school fearing for their lives and extra payment for boat fares, he said.
Abul, who lived in Sunamganj to carry out a study on behalf of a Canadian university, said: “The calamities have driven the poor to a corner while many prosperous families are facing poverty. As a result, they are drawing their children away from studies to make up for financial losses.”
He advises authorities to launch awareness campaigns for parents in the affected Haor and coastal regions and create alternative employment alongside.
Rather than making them dependent on government relief, these families need to be made self-reliant through sustainable projects, he said. “This will help the families become sustainable and take the pressure off the children so they can continue their studies.”
“When the Haor areas go underwater, local influential people take over the lands and farm fishes. In these cases, farmers don’t have any work for six to seven months. Something alternative could be set up for them. They’ll get work if the tourism sector is developed.”
Abul also suggested setting up a “mobile school” in times of calamities.
Moulvibazar Headmaster Dipak said they taught the basic subjects to children who took shelter at his school and sees this as a viable method to continue the students’ studies in difficult times.
PLANS ‘ON THE WAY’
Shahedul Khabir Chowdhury, a director (college and administration) of DSHE, said the education system is not entirely ready to offset the losses the calamity-affected students suffer.
“We've been instructed to look into the problems of such students. But the reality is that it can’t be done thoroughly. It’s also true that we don’t have the scope to look at things everywhere.”
He said authorities have gathered data on the damage done to the country’s education by natural disasters, pandemic and other issues.
“We are devising plans based on the findings to come up with ways to mitigate learning gaps at all costs. [The plans] will incorporate ways to make up for the lost time with daily classes.”
[Writing in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo; editing by Biswadip Das]