Boys and girls learning together, for a more equal future

Above: Learners in the co-educational Daffodil Youth Club debate a topic in class. Photo: FIVDB

Teknaf subdistrict in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, is known for being a highly religious and conservative community. In Teknaf adolescent boys and girls have traditionally not been able to spend time together, whether socially or for education, due to cultural and social factors.

The area is also home to indigenous Chakma people, a hard-working ethnic group historically engaged in agriculture. Most Chakma people have not had access to formal education, leading to low literacy rates.

Above: Learning in action at the Daffodil Youth Club. Photo: FIVDB

Through the Australian Humanitarian Partnership’s work with host communities in Cox’s Bazar, Plan International Bangladesh’s implementing partner Friends in Village Development Bangladesh (FIVDB) took on the challenge of starting a youth club where adolescent boys and girls would jointly receive education in literacy and numeracy, as well as life skills sessions, including on child protection.

The concept of co-education initially met community resistance. The existing parents’ group, youth groups and other community leaders did not agree with girls and boys learning together in their teenage years.

Above: A male and female student at the youth club work together on a learning activity. Photo: FIVDB

To convince the community of the potential benefits, FIVDB organised meetings and one-on-one discussions to allay fears and concerns, and to share the types of lessons that the youth would be focused on. Eventually, after much hard work by FIVDB’s field staff, the community understood the value of the project, and supported the establishment of the Daffodil Community-Based Youth Club, where boys and girls would learn inclusively.

While it had taken time to get some in the community to support the concept, others were strong advocates. Local residents Tailamong Chakma and Ganimala Chakma came forward to provide a space to use for the club, free of cost, adjacent to their house.

“We are very hopeful about your initiative and we stand by you with our little support,” Ganimala told FIVDB staff. “If young girls and boys get benefits at my premises and prosper in their lives in future, we will be very much honoured.”

Her husband, Tailamong committed to maintain the space and support the establishment with his own labour.

“We will also look after any unwanted disagreements among the community about the co-education system at the club,” Tailamong told FIVDB.

When learners were being selected to join the club, the benefits for young people in the area became even clearer. As one learner, Maikyu Chakma, articulated: “When we are in the club, we want to share a space with the boys as we only see them as siblings. We want to grow together with mutual learning and understanding.”

Others, like Chemong Chakma, expressed their goals of learning to read and write for their future:  “I want to become a part of the club wholeheartedly and want to learn different skills, like proper reading and writing, so that I can utilise this learning afterwards in my life.”

The club has been up and running since March 2021, meeting six days a week, with 20 learners split into two groups learning literacy, numeracy, life skills and protection topics. Through this process, the gender-transformative approach actively examines, questions, and influences traditional gender norms and imbalances of power that have created advantages for boys and men over girls and women in the community.

The co-education concept is still very unusual in Teknaf, and it is hoped in time that it will help to tackle root causes of gender inequality, and reshape unequal power relations by building shared understanding between young men and women.

The AHP response in Bangladesh, supported by the Australian Government, is led by a consortium of all six AHP Australian NGO partners, working with implementing partners and national NGOs. The work focuses on the displaced Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar as well as host communities, working across a range of sectors, including education.