At 17 Mozammat Razia Begum is older than most of the girls in her class at the Narandi School. She was married at 15 but her husband abandoned her.
‘If I had been educated he would not have been able to abandon me so readily, leaving me nothing for maintenance,’ she says. The marriage of young girls without proper contracts – followed soon after by abandonment – is a serious social problem in Bangladesh. Razia blames her parents. ‘My parents were wrong to marry me off so young. If I had a daughter, I should not let her marry until she was at least 19.’
The school Razia attends is one of 6,000 non-formal village schools set up by BRAC – the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee – exclusively for pupils who have never started school and those who had to drop out. Three-quarters of the 180,000 pupils are girls. Although married girls are not normally catered for, exceptions are made. Many of the teachers are women: parents in Bangladesh frequently keep their daughters away from school if teachers are male. And each BRAC school is situated right in the community: if schools are far away parents will not let girls attend. It is not acceptable for girls – especially those past puberty – to walk about the countryside in this devout Muslim country.
‘I am fortunate to be here,’ says Razia, looking round the schoolroom with its tin roof and walls of bamboo and mud. She had to fight to come, though. Her father believes that a woman’s place is at home. ‘Had I been a boy,’ she said, ‘my father would surely have allowed me to study.’
Razia’s own mother was married at 12 and, like her oldest daughter, had no say in the matter. ‘I want my sisters’ lives to be different. They should study and be given a choice about their marriage. Husbands will not dare to treat an educated woman badly.’ On this subject, Razia becomes quite animated.
Razia would like to go on with her studies after she has completed the BRAC course. During the two-and-a-half hour daily session – which is timetabled to fit in with seasonal work and religious obligations – she learns literacy and numeracy, as well as enjoying activities such as singing, dancing, games and storybook reading.
BRAC have had a remarkable success in keeping the drop-out rate from their schools to five per cent and graduating 90 per cent of their students into the formal primary system. This proves that the obstacles to girls’ education – even in such a poor environment – can be overcome.
As for Razia, her experience of life has forced her to question many things she once took for granted – such as the need to get married. She does not wish to marry again. And many other girls have begun to question the restrictions imposed on them. More of them want to be teachers – like their own teacher – or doctors. Razia says: ‘I tell my sisters to study well and get a job. If they get a job they will be able to do as well as men and men will respect them.’