Bangladesh is turning to bicycles to help girls in rural areas complete their education.
Nationwide 1.5 million girls drop out of school or have never enrolled and the number increases annually, according to U.N. figures. Poor parents marry their daughters off because they cannot afford to continue their education past grade 8 – about two-thirds of all girls in Bangladesh marry before their 18th birthdays, according to Girls Not Brides.
Analysts point to bicycles as a positive approach to stemming the dropout rate for girls who face long commutes to and from school.
One Bangladeshi girl, a grade 11 student, says her friends could have been stayed in school had they acquired bikes.
“I was inspired by the NGO girls who travel in remote areas with bicycles. My father gave me this bicycle to shuttle between school and my residence. Many people rebuked my parents for allowing me to use it, but now it is nothing new to them. I enjoy cycling to school,” Tahmina, 16, a student at Niamatpur High School and College, told BenarNews.
She rides three kilometers (1.8 miles) from her village home to Niamatpur, a sub-district of Naogaon, a district in western Bangladesh.
“Poverty forced many of my friends to quit their studies after completing grade eight. Their parents could not provide transportation costs to their daughters. They are mothers now. If they got bicycles for free, they could have been very good students,” Tahmina added.
Bangladeshi girls also face a gender challenge in schooling because parents in poor families tend to prioritize the education of sons over daughters, according to an educator.
“Many parents have to stop sending their girls to the schools and colleges as they cannot afford transportation costs. Poor parents even borrow money to send their sons to schools and colleges, but they do not do so in the case of their daughters. Instead, the girls are married off,” Salahuddin Ahmed, a senior teacher at the Benipur Government Primary School in Niamatpur, told BenarNews.
Banks chip in
Now, the country’s commercial banks are getting involved in the effort to help educate girls.
Bangladesh’s central bank is asking commercial banks and financial firms to donate bicycles to the poor girls in rural areas. Last week, the Central Bank of Bangladesh issued a circular calling on banks and other firms to give bicycles to the schoolgirls and college-age girls for free through their annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds.
“Yes, we have received the central bank request. My bank, Mutual Trust Bank, has already distributed 1,000 bicycles to girls in northern Kurigram and Lalmonirhat districts,” Anis A. Khan, president of the Bankers’ Association of Bangladesh and managing director of the Mutual Trust Bank, told BenarNews.
In Bangladesh, 47 commercial banks fund CSR projects each year along with other financial institutions.
Rasheda K. Choudhury, executive director of the non-governmental organization Campaign for Popular Education, welcomed the bankers’ efforts.
“Girls outnumber boys in primary enrollment, but a significant number of the girls drop out at the secondary stage. Most of the 40 percent of students who drop out at the secondary level are girls,” Choudhury told BenarNews.
“So, providing free bicycles will encourage girls to continue the education, provided the families allow them,” she said.
Choudhury added that the authorities should provide cycles to at least five girls in a locality so they can travel to school together.
Ahmed the educator said girls from several local villages in Niamatpur use bicycles to go to school and college.
“Watching girls coming to school on cycles was unthinkable some 20 years ago. But now people have come out of their conservative mindset. So, if the poor families are given bicycles free of cost, they would be interested in continuing their daughters’ education,” he said.
In the far northern district of Panchagarh, more girls are riding bikes compared with boys, Mohammad Salahuddin, an associate professor at Amlahar Degree College in Panchagarh, told BenarNews.
“The school-going girls have started using bicycles as their parents cannot afford the transportation cost. The girls come to schools located five to 10 kilometers [3.1 to 6.2miles] from their villages by riding bicycles. This is a big achievement for us,” he told BenarNews.
“Bicycles have given them the freedom to travel from home to school,” he said.
Shahriar Sharif contributed to this report.