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The importance of opportunities for girls in Bangladesh

This year Bangladesh celebrates its 40th birthday. Formerly ‘East Pakistan’, Bangladesh became independent in December 1971 after a nine-month war with West Pakistan.

Some were pessimistic about the future of the country, particularly when years of turbulence followed independence. But Bangladesh has come a long way. In 1988, international aid accounted for 85 per cent of the country’s yearly development budget; now this is just 2 per cent. Its economy has also been growing steadily – between 5-6 per cent in recent years – relying on the success of the garments industry and money sent home by Bangladeshi’s from abroad. Politically and socially, Bangladesh has also earned its stripes, with regular elections, a free press and concerted investment in health and education.

But despite all the progress, some remain pessimistic about the country’s future. Nearly half its citizens live below the poverty line (surviving on less than a dollar a day) and with increasing food insecurity and a rapidly growing population, its society faces the huge challenge of how to improve the lives of the poor. Experts believe the key to breaking an inter-generational poverty cycle is to focus on giving poor children opportunities to develop their full potential and this is particularly important when it comes to girls.

Unlike some developing countries, here there is cause for particular hope. Bangladesh has a vibrant women’s movement and efforts are being made to encourage women and girls to invest in their futures. This is vital for the country’s development, because evidence suggests girls have an even greater ability to effect change. The 2010 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report ‘Investing in Vulnerable Children’ refers to a study which showed that when women and girls earn income, they typically reinvest 90 per cent back into their families, compared to just 30 or 40 per cent from men and boys.

Showing this principal working in action, the UNICEF report gives 17-year old Sanchita in Bangladesh as an example. Born into poverty, Sanchita received a small micro-finance loan and bought a cow. With money from the cow’s milk, she paid for her own schooling and that of her brother. With extra help to learn new skills, she also began growing her own vegetables and the income from this was used to help raise her family’s standards of living.

In Bangladesh, nearly 80 per cent of girls are married before the age of 20, with over a quarter in unions before the age of 15 years. However, an extra year of school has been shown to boost a girl’s eventual earnings by 10 to 20 per cent. The government of Bangladesh therefore offers secondary school scholarships as a method to persuade girls to postpone marriage. Even within family life, higher levels of education mean women have a greater awareness of infant and child health issues, knowledge which helps break poor nutrition and health cycles. Bangladesh therefore hopes to be one of the countries which prove investment in girls is a key to economic development and social change.

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