A Group of Unexpectedly Optimistic, Ebullient, and Smart Young Women

Girls in the classroom of the BRAC branch office
Photo: Afsana Adiba

BRAC Branch Office, Dhaka Dokkhin, Sylhet, Bangladesh

For the last two days, I have been meeting underprivileged youths who received, or are receiving, BRAC’s skills training of various sorts. I’ve been amazed by the stories of these people, their life’s struggles, and most of all, their pragmatism, courage, and resilience.

Today is the last day of my trip, and I met a group of girls receiving trade-specific skills training and basic numeracy and literacy skills, including digital literacy*. My main motivation was to find how their digital literacy training was going. I was more curious because, in the specific BRAC branch that we were visiting, the participants were also given smartphones. I was not disappointed; the time spent with them was full of surprises.

When we arrived, they were having their Bengali class. The class, as expected, mostly consisted of girls wearing burkas, many covering their faces with niqabs and the rest with masks. I was observing the class from outside.

Their teacher, a woman in her twenties, was engaging, no doubt. But I was struck by the energy of these girls, mostly school dropouts, eager to come to the front to demonstrate their freshly acquired spelling skills. I don’t remember ever being so excited in my 18 years of educational life. It felt like they were so parched for knowledge that they were now soaking in every bit of what they got.

The next class was on digital literacy, and everyone took out their phones. The same teacher was teaching them how to go live on Facebook. Now they were even more eager to show off their skills. We got in and started quizzing them about their digital skills. I was impressed by what they learned and claimed they could demonstrate—going live, deleting videos, creating strong passwords, changing privacy settings, setting up and sending emails, and searching on Google. They told me clearly about how to identify fake IDs and why they should keep away from social media users using one. They Googled Bill Gates, read his short bio in Bangla, and told me that he was a super-rich businessman. I was enthralled!

You may think, what’s so special about this? Every 14-year-old today knows way more. We need to remember that these girls come from some of the most marginalized communities in a socially and religiously conservative region. All of them had dropped out of school years ago at various stages between classes 3 and 9, and everyone did so because of poverty. Some had feature phones at home, belonging exclusively to the male members of the house, and others had none. For everyone, the phone they received from BRAC was their first true encounter with technology. Thus, the grace and ease with which they embraced the digital world were truly inspiring.

The author with a group of girls who received BRAC’s skills training.
Photo: Asma Tabassum

After they became somewhat easy with us, they proposed some singing and dancing. First, they wanted to perform a chorus song in karaoke. One of them had it loaded on their phone and wanted to connect it with the class’s music system. When they were having trouble connecting, we suggested performing without music or playing from the phone. But they said the phone did not produce good sound and declined to perform without high-quality music. Such obsession with perfection! Finally, they managed to connect it. All of them sang at the height of their voice and without inhibition, even though most of them were completely off-note. I loved their fearless performance. Then came dancing, one after another, in solos and duets, in perfect synchrony with the music and with each other, with perfect movements of their feet, torsos, and hands, with expressive eyes dancing with the music through the slit between their headscarves and masks (or niqabs). I was dumbfounded. In a conservative rural area like Dhaka Dokkhin, this is revolutionary. I also noticed that some of their burkas had fitted patterns—a colourful flared bottom and a fitted top, like that of an A-line dress. These girls are pushing the boundary for sure, but in a measured way, so as not to rock the boat too much.

Then I interviewed some of the girls in private. I talked about their dreams and aspirations and tried to gauge their confidence. They were all very clear about why they wanted to earn—dignity, freedom, and security. All of them said they will continue to work for the rest of their lives.

When I asked them about their prospects of working after their marriage, all of them giggled at the talk of their own marriage. But when they settled down, some said that they were confident that their in-laws would have no objection. Others were not so sure.

One of the major challenges these types of skill-development programs face is retaining trained women in the labour market after marriage, especially after having children. Responsibilities of managing the house and child, but most of all, the societal expectations from married women in conservative societies frequently throw women out of the labour market into the confine of their homes.

I want to believe these girls—education and the World Wide Web opening up their world—would be different. The way they transformed their burka into fashionable long dresses, I want to believe that they will use the same ingenuity to push the social boundary for financial freedom and dignity. The progress might be slow, but slow progress is progress, nevertheless.

*As a part of the program called Alternative Learning Programme for Out of School Adolescents, which is a combination of BRAC’s original STAR program and training modules on literacy and numeracy, along with digital literacy

Nusrat Jahan is the Head of Communications and Knowledge Management at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University.