Life-long discrimination, subjugation and dependence prevent a large part of rural Bangladeshi girls from receiving an education and contributing to society as equals, but a combination of policy and non-governmental initiatives is helping to improve their situation. The British Council's Alexandra Tyers explains.
Bangladesh's investment in digital access over the coming years
Bangladesh is a young country of young people. The country is just over 40 years old, and more than 60 per cent of its total population of 160 million is under the age of 25, with a third aged between 10 and 25. These young people are the agents of change within Bangladeshi society. They are central to Bangladesh’s ambitions to grow from a low-income to a middle-income country by 2023.
To realise this ambition, Bangladesh's government is planning a programme called Digital Bangladesh 2020. It is a strategy that aims to expand digital use across the entire country over the next few years. The digital sector is widely regarded as the next big potential business success for Bangladesh. Software export earnings were around $100 million from July 2012 to May 2013, and the government has recognised information and communications technology (ICT) as one of the most important sectors for the economy.
Learning how to use digital technology can reduce poverty. It allows access to online education where people can develop new skills, especially in English. People in Bangladesh who have better English skills tend to have better access to jobs, and earn higher salaries.
English and digital education access is not easy for young Bangladeshis
However, these hopes for the future generation of young Bangladeshis sit against a backdrop of extremely low levels of English. English is regarded as an essential skill for young Bangladeshis who want a good career and quality of life. But the way that English is taught in schools has resulted in poor spoken proficiency and low self-confidence among students. English is seen as inaccessible, difficult and expensive for the vast majority of the population, with a significant rural-urban divide.
Bangladesh's huge demand for English, coupled with a lack of face-to-face learning opportunities, leaves a huge opportunity for digital English teaching. One approach could be through mobile phone technology. In May 2013, there were more than 100 million mobile phone subscribers in the country — more than 80 per cent of the adult population — with high rural rates of access, and some of the world’s cheapest call tariffs.
In contrast, figures for computer and Internet use in Bangladesh are still extremely low. Only four per cent of the adult population used the Internet through a computer in 2010. But this is rapidly changing. While personal computer ownership remains low (less than three per cent in 2012), there are growing numbers of cyber cafés and government computer centres around the country, and more than 80 Internet service providers. Education services, including English language teaching, are increasingly being provided at these community computer centres and via mobile phones.
A digital divide based on gender
Despite all this digital growth, there is a growing gender digital divide. While women constitute half of Bangladesh's largely young population, prevailing social and gender norms impose restrictions on the extent to which women can effect change.
Child marriage (46 per cent of adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are currently married), physical and sexual abuse (41 per cent of adolescent girls think a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances), malnourishment, low literacy rates and poor maternal health are just some of the issues that Bangladeshi girls will encounter in their lifetimes. Plagued by life-long discrimination, subjugation and dependence, most rural women and girls can't contribute as equal participants in social, political and economic matters.
Women and girls are also excluded from taking part in the digital sphere. Traditionally, men remain the gatekeepers of technology, with fewer numbers of girls accessing digital technology than boys. Many parents are unwilling to let their daughters visit community computer centres, as they are seen as unsuitable and unsafe places for women. Because of these social restrictions, women and girls in Bangladesh have less access to education and digital technology than men, and thus have less access to learning English.
This gender digital divide will lead to a gendered skills imbalance and worse life chances for women. There is a need for female community ICT centres where girls can access English resources and learn digital skills. These safe social spaces can help girls overcome issues of mobility and education access.
Helping Bangladeshi adolescent girls redress the balance
This is the context in which we're running the English and ICT for Adolescent Girls project (EITA), in partnership with BRAC's Adolescent Development Programme. The project aims to redress the gender digital divide and create job opportunities for girls by breaking down the barriers they face in learning digital skills and English.
The development organisation BRAC was a natural choice as a partner, as it already has a network of 8,000 long-established adolescent clubs that teach life skills across Bangladesh, attended by a quarter of a million teenage girls.
The project uses after-school, community-based computer and learning centres for girls within the existing BRAC adolescents’ clubs. These are seen as a safe social space for girls, calming parents’ fears about their daughters' safety. This overcomes the social restrictions that prevent girls from learning digital skills.
The project uses portable netbooks preloaded with British Council digital English resources, solar-powered radios and micro SD-cards preloaded with audio for mobile phones. Some of the teenage girls taking part are trained as peer leaders, who can then teach the others using digital English resources and speaking activities.
So far, we have opened 50 clubs in two rural districts and trained more than 700 girls aged 14 to 16 from low socio-economic groups. We've seen a tremendous positive change in the girls' attitudes, confidence and English and digital skills. Among the girls taking part, some have found employment at local ICT centres, while others have improved their English and developed leadership skills.
As well as their security concerns, parents have also needed some persuading why it's worthwhile to allow their daughters to attend the clubs. Some of the girls have helped to organise community English and ICT fairs to show their families what they are learning and to gain their acceptance.
Learning skills helps Bangladeshi girls take control of their futures
Ramija, who is 16, attends one of the clubs. Earlier this year, Ramija’s parents wanted her to get married. Ramija asked her mother to postpone the marriage, because she didn't want to leave school - but her mother was unable to help, as she didn’t have any power to make decisions in the family.
Ramija realised that she would have to talk to her father directly. She told him about what she had learned in the clubs, and how she could use these English and digital skills to earn an income and cover her own educational expenses to continue full-time education. She was able to persuade her father to allow her to continue going to school, and not get married until she was older. Ramija is now still in school, and aspires to work in the computer industry after she finishes her education.
We have big plans and hopes for these girls. The project is due to grow next year, with a new mobile learning platform. We hope to link the project into other vocational training projects, to help club graduates develop their skills further and use their digital training in future jobs or study.
We're also starting to get the gender digital divide onto the policy agenda. We're publishing our work to a wider audience and organising a policy dialogue event on women, technology and English with the private sector, government and civil society.
Alexandra Tyers manages one of the British Council's partnerships with BRAC, the biggest non-governmental development organisation in the world, based in Bangladesh. The two organisations run clubs where teenage girls learn digital and English skills. Last week, the project won a Manthan Award.