Ensure equity for girls in education | Inquirer Opinion
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Ensure equity for girls in education

Dhaka—The movie “An Education” is the story of a young ordinary girl who goes through life with her parents’ aspirations becoming her own. Her parents expect her to attend the University of Oxford and she is groomed accordingly. Along the way, she meets a man who soon becomes, to her parents, a prospective husband for their daughter. Surprised by her parents’ shift in focus from Oxford to marriage, she asks, “Why go through all those years of studying, all those years paying for an education, when she could have just dressed up and attended parties, and dances, in her efforts to land a marriage.” Many women in real life, too, deserve the answer to this question.

In many countries around the world, girls are not given access to the same educational opportunities as boys. So, activists and researchers call for increased investments in girls’ education. Bangladesh has been no exception to this—we’ve achieved some milestones, mostly in terms of statistics. We’ve done well, but the question remains whether we’ve done enough.

We’ve battled against the problem of early marriage and perhaps eliminated dowry to some extent. But has there been any change in our collective mentality toward girls’ education and their aspirations? No, not really—at least not inclusively. Yes, there was a time when girls hardly got to finish their HSC (higher secondary certificate) exams, but now many girls “get to” go to universities. The “get to” part remains the problem, since girls’ education still, in many cases, remains dependent on the family’s decision, and not the girls’ own. It may be difficult to agree with this if one only considers women from middle-income and higher-income families. There are many inspiring and empowered women in Dhaka and, among these trailblazing women, it’s rare and difficult to find a woman from a lower socioeconomic background or a woman who lives in a remote village of Bangladesh. There is a huge divide here, which becomes visible when we open our eyes to the whole picture and not only to selective parts of it.

To this day, it’s not surprising to hear of a girl suddenly having to drop out of college or university because it’s time to “marry her off.” It comes down to two things really—marriage as a substitute for education and, of course, the deeply entrenched patriarchy in our society. This is why objectifying women is still somewhat of a norm around us, and why women are always the ones mostly judged by their looks.

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The marriage market in Bangladesh is a breeding ground for objectification of women. How a woman looks, how she walks—these are often given the same importance, sometimes even more, as how educated a woman is. Sadly, this is more of a norm than an exception and so, existing narratives are not devoid of such objectification. These problematic narratives spill over to the lives of girls everywhere and how a girl sees herself growing up. Women needing make-up, women wearing high heels, the expensive jewelry women wear—are these by choice? Maybe so, but can it be denied that these practices have patriarchal roots too? Does it matter? Arguably, yes.

You see, these societal “norms” shape the image of women in society both in the eyes of men and women, and influence the education women are “allowed” to have. If it were the case that most of these girls who are married off get to continue their education after marriage, then that would have been a better consequence than them having to give up their education. But we don’t know whether this is mostly the case, and even if it is, the lack of freedom of choice for women remains.

Then there’s the fact that it’s often forgotten that women are humans, not superwomen. Having to juggle all the responsibilities just because they’re women is, undoubtedly, unfair. In reality, there will always be some things women do better than men, and vice versa. The point is that the attitude toward what constitutes women’s responsibilities needs to change. This is where education has a strong role to play in breaking the stereotypes born from patriarchy.

To fight patriarchy, we need to educate our boys as much as we need to educate our girls. First, we need to fight for equity in choice. If a woman chooses not to have a career, that is her success and society should see it that way, too, because success lies in the happiness that comes from choosing one’s own path.A good education matters. Only with a proper education does an educated human being, girl or boy, become an asset to society. I don’t have to be a feminist to argue for girls’ right to education. I just have to be a human who believes education to be a right. When we view education as not just a means to earning a living but having a wider purpose, as Rabindranath Tagore says, of awakening the mind and soul—it’s easier to understand why everyone, every girl and boy, has a right to the magic of awakening their souls. The Daily Star/Asia News Network

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Rubaiya Murshed is a Ph.D. researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is also a lecturer (on study leave) at the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka.

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The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.

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