In past decades, BRAC schools have educated 14 million people from disadvantaged backgrounds in Bangladesh. Today, the government enrolls most of those children in state schools. So BRAC has shifted its attention away from primary education to improving children’s early years through joyful learning experiences.
Erum Mariam, Executive Director of the BRAC Institute of Educational Development, and I visited Manikganj, a rural area about three hours west of Dhaka, to hear from three generations of BRAC learners.
How have BRAC’s initiatives made a real difference in their lives? What did the program mean to them personally? And how has BRAC helped shape Bangladesh as a nation?
Rowshon: in charge and leading change
When BRAC began its education program in the 1980s, Rowshon’s father donated a patch of land for a school. “My father was enthusiastic about education,” says Rowshon. “BRAC was getting to kids who were dropping out. If we could address this, we would be addressing illiteracy.”
But the BRAC school was no ordinary school. “I saw that the way they would write was beautiful, it was fun, full of encouragement,” Rowshon remembers. So she asked her father if she could attend.
Today, she is a head teacher of Doshchira Primary School, a tidy, well-run school with more than 300 students. Recalling how BRAC worked with communities, Rowshon encouraged parents and alumni to participate in the life of the school and to improve its facilities. Over 18 years, she says, she built a school “with a connection to my soul”.
When BRAC approached Rowshon to open a play lab, she jumped at the opportunity. She knew what BRAC could do. The play lab they built together is a ‘dream land’ of creative activities and locally produced art—all led by mothers of the students.
It’s not just good for the students; it’s good for the mothers. Many of them say that making toys and decorations takes them back to their own childhood. They can rekindle their imaginations, meet with other parents, and learn self-care. In turn, this all helps them to become better mothers themselves.
Papiya: passing on knowledge
As part of BRAC’s second generation of learners, Papiya now runs the play lab at Debulia Danga Primary School. Her own mother worked long hours in a garment factory to provide for her family, and “could not really give us time when we were young”. But she supported Papiya’s education and now Papiya dedicates herself to giving other children the same start in life.
Children in her lab learn to socialize, share, and communicate through stories, rhymes, songs, and play. They build up their motor and language skills while exploring the stimulating environment of the school. After that experience, they arrive in primary school with a degree of independence and social skills to help them tackle the next level. “They become less ferocious, less self-centered,” says Papiya. This work, she maintains, has important and long-lasting effects: “How these children will become affects the whole society.”
Sharmila: forging the future
So what about the current generation of BRAC learners? Well, young Sharmila is currently enrolled in Papiya’s play lab, while her mom takes counselling from Papiya with weekly calls.
In these calls, Papiya shares tips and activities to reinforce Sharmila’s learning at school. And Sharmila’s mom gets some much-needed space to talk about what worries her—raising children while her husband is away working in Dhaka, managing a household, feeling overwhelmed.
As a result, Sharmila is growing up with more resources than the generations before her; play labs and a supportive mother give her a head start in life. And she’s encouraged to be curious and confident. “Girls like Sharmila—they will take charge,” says Erum. “Play leaders—all girls—will go to places of responsibility. We want to see the day when all our girls will take responsibility, when they will shape society. Where can girls’ education take us? That is what we want to see: when they become a person, when they lead, take charge, have self-esteem.”
Three generations, three hopeful stories. Rowshon, Papiya and Sharmila lead lives very different to those of their parents. A BRAC education helped to make Rowshon a confident and imaginative head teacher. Play labs gave Papiya a profession that is personally and professionally rewarding. Sharmila has opportunities her mother never had. Their stories are multiplied by millions across the country.
Thanks to its focus on education, Bangladesh is no longer the country it once was, where literacy rates were low and few women were seen on the streets. Those memories of conflict, famine, rapid population growth, and high death tolls from natural disaster are fading. And people are optimistic. As Erum says: “Bangladesh—where we were 50 years ago, we do not see that. Where we are today, you will also not see that. The future will be different.”