The government should provide support for both married and unmarried girls and boys who dropped out during the Covid-19 pandemic and now want to return to schools, said participants in a virtual discussion on Monday.
They also emphasised the need for a social awareness programme across the country to check dropout rates.
They said these at the discussion jointly organised by Citizen's Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh and Manusher Jonno Foundation.
Shahin Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation, presided over the programme, while Towfiqul Islam Khan, senior fellow of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), moderated it.
Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, convener of the Citizen's Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh and also distinguished fellow of CPD, said the risk of dropouts among girls was higher than boys and this would have a long-term impact, stressing that the government's initiatives to check dropout rates and to recover the learning losses were not clear at all.
"At least 10 to 12 percent of female students are facing early marriages due to the lack of social safety nets during the Covid-19 pandemic. They have already dropped out from schools and it is now a big challenge to bring them back into the fold," he said.
"There is no alternative to special allowances for poor children and school meals for all. At the same time, the schools' infrastructure must be restructured. The government must take steps to launch a social awareness campaign against early marriage and child labour," he added.
Shahin Anam said currently 4.3% of children aged between 5-14 were engaged in hazardous works in the country. Fifty-one percent of girls in Bangladesh were married off before reaching the age of 18 and the crisis was exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many schools across the country now having no female students in grades 9 and 10.
"Poverty worsened due to losses of family income, especially for the poorest. Poverty and not being able to arrange basic necessities for family members are the major reasons behind child marriage. School closure meant girls were out of school for extended periods, creating a 'security risk' for sexual harassment and other forms of violence, but the local administration became non-functional. Parents took advantage of this," she said.
Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education, said there was no actual research on how many children dropped out and how many could do so in the future. In fact, monitoring systems had weakened.
"The government must conduct research to identify dropouts and to recover learning losses immediately. There is no provision to provide stipends to married female students. But we observed that a good number of female students got married during the pandemic. So, then the government should change its rules and provide stipends to married students," she added.
Rasheda also said there was a lack of coordination in implementing any project related to education.
The experts put forth the following recommendations:
- Support to married and unmarried girls and boys to return to schools and continue their education
- Develop monitoring tools for teachers to ensure girls at risk of child marriage are identified and saved from it
- National campaigns to highlight child marriage and pushing children into hazardous work as being illegal
- Develop a national action plan with clear responsibilities on how to bring children back to schools
- Increase social protection for girls and boys from low-income families
- Extend awareness raising against child marriage and child labour through family counseling mass media campaigns
- Sensitise and capacitate law enforcers and service providers to prevent child marriage and hazardous child labour
- Activate helpline numbers apart from 999 such as 16430 during a crisis
- Engage more cultural and religious leaders focusing on exacerbation of harmful practices during a crisis