A Giant Step for Women

Sending girls to school is lifting Bangladesh's economy

The one-room schoolhouse in impoverished Bangalpara can afford only thatch walls and jute mats instead of chairs. But it still represents a great leap forward for Bangladesh. Inside, two dozen girls, aged 8 to 14, study reading, writing, and arithmetic. Greeting a visitor, 9-year-old Julie Akhtar, wearing a neat blue dress and a red flower in her hair, stands at attention and outlines her aspirations: to go to college and become a journalist. "I want to inform people of developments in the village and the country," she says.

A generation ago, such ambition would have been dismissed as a childish dream. Women in this predominantly Muslim nation of 130 million used to have no opportunity for education and were confined to the home--indeed, they enjoyed hardly any rights, even against abusive husbands. But now, Julie has a chance. She is one of 770,000 girls taking part in an innovative informal education system in 60,000 villages run by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. BRAC was founded in 1970 by Fazle Abed, a former Shell executive, and is now one of the world's most successful nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Programs such as these, which supplement public schools, are a big reason behind the rise in the share of Bangladeshi children receiving primary education--from 55% two decades ago to 85% now. Bangladesh's goal is to reach universal primary education by 2006.

It is hard to overstate the impact that the empowerment of women is having on Bangladesh's economy, which has averaged 5% growth for a decade. Women are behind most of the millions of small enterprises spawned in the past three decades through skills training and microloans by organizations such as BRAC, Grameen Bank, and hundreds of other NGOs. Rising literacy and interest in careers has also led to a sharp drop in fertility and infant mortality as women practice birth control. And women are the main semi-skilled workers for Bangladesh's booming garment export industry.

It helps that the government, in cooperation with BRAC, gives girls free tuition through eighth grade in Bangladesh, where the annual per capita income is $385. Another key for BRAC is that it works closely with parents. Conservative Muslims don't want their girls away from home for too long, so BRAC scatters small schools throughout the countryside to cut travel time, and limits the school day to three or four hours. Teachers meet with parents monthly to discuss school management. To make classes more engaging, BRAC schools devote 40 minutes each day to music and dance.

The strategy pays off. Samvar Hussain, a small trader, says his three children refused to attend the overcrowded government primary school. But they enjoy the BRAC school, where 90% of students go on to public high schools. "I had given up all hope," Hussain says. "But now I dream of my children becoming doctors and engineers."

Perhaps an even more profound impact is that programs like BRAC have opened women's eyes to new opportunities. After women graduate, BRAC offers training and small loans to help them start such businesses as poultry farming or garment-making. One beneficiary, Elina Yasmin, 18, resisted pressure from her parents to marry young, and she trained as a photographer at BRAC. Now, her parents appreciate the $53 she earns monthly shooting weddings and festivals. BRAC founder Abed, 66, says he has witnessed countless such examples. "I have seen the change in lives of rural women," says Abed. "They are the future of the country."

That's a big reason development experts from nations such as Mali, the Sudan, and Zimbabwe have been studying programs like BRAC's. Bangladesh could be an especially good role model for other conservative Muslim countries, where exclusion of women has contributed heavily to economic stagnation. In fact, encouraged by Western donors, BRAC in July opened its first foreign office. The location: Kabul, Afghanistan.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Bangalpara, Bangladesh

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.