by BGR Staff
In 2016, BGR provided a grant to the Jamyang Foundation to support the free school lunch program at the Visakha Girls’ School in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. The grant covered the period from April 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017. This article, based on the final report from the Jamyang Foundation, describes the challenges faced by the school and the benefits of the project.
Visakha Girls’ School is located at Dhosri, a remote village in the district of Khagrachari in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh. The school was founded in 2005 and began offering free education for girls with the generous support of the Jamyang Foundation, which is under the direction of the American bhikshuni, Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. Initially, the Visakha Girls’ School offered classes to students in the 1st grade only. Later, more classes were gradually added. Now the school offers classes up to 5th grade.
The school still faces significant challenges. For decades the indigenous people throughout the Hill Tracts have been the subjects of genocide perpetrated by the Bangladesh military. The situation is critical and has required the UN and others to intervene several times, but for the most part the situation has received little or no international attention. Land grabs and aggression against the indigenous population occur continuously and any resistance to these injustices is met with extreme retaliation, including rape and murder by the Bangladesh army. The indigenous peoples of the CHT are victims of forced displacement and discrimination in all aspects of life in Bangladesh. The theft of their lands continues to have enormous social, economic, and political consequences for the people. Educating Marma girls is one of the only ways to protect them from exploitation and strengthen them to face the difficulties that lie ahead.
Visakha Girls’ School currently has 125 students, all girls, with an age range from 5 to 13 years. The girls study in classes from pre-school to 5th grade. All students receive free education, daily lunches, and school supplies such as books, notebooks, pens, pencils, and so on. The school employs six full-time teachers and one cook. The girls are mostly from the ethnic Marma community, one of several Buddhist minorities who are native to the CHT. About 10 percent of the girls are ethnically Chakma, another Buddhist community that is native to the area. Centuries of economic injustice, social deprivation, and cultural marginalization have brought these minorities to the brink of extinction in a predominantly Muslim country.
Visakha Girls’ School is located in a remote place where no educational opportunities are available for the girls’ desperately poor families. The families survive by subsistence farming on the hill slopes and narrow stretches of land between the hills. Their homes are scattered across these small hills, which makes it difficult for them to reach essential services for social development or to create economic opportunities.
The community that the school serves often suffers terrible injustices perpetrated by state actors due to ongoing conflicts in the CHT. Many of the families are internally displaced refugees. In this situation of perpetual unrest, girls are the most vulnerable population. Girls are less likely to receive basic education and health care and they are the most likely to suffer in the conflict situation. Before Visakha Girls’ School was started, almost all the girls lacked access to even a basic level of education. Thanks to the establishment of this school program, now almost all school-age girls in the neighborhood attend school. Many of them are also furthering their education after finishing 5th grade at Visakha Girls’ School.
Project Benefits, Successes, and Challenges
One of the biggest challenges for these girls is that they must walk for hours over hilly terrain to reach the school. They are already tired even before they arrive at school. Due to chronic poverty, they are weak and often sick. Often they come to school hungry. The free lunch program at the school is of great benefit to them. The nutritious lunches help them stay healthy, so they can focus on their studies while at school. Since the lunch program was introduced, their health has greatly improved, their school attendance has dramatically increased, the dropout rate has dropped, and their overall performance in their educational program has improved. They demonstrated this with their scores in the state-run evaluation test for 5th grade students. The food program also incentivizes families to send their girls to school rather than employ them at home for domestic labor.
Along with their education the lunch program at Visakha Girls’ School is the most essential support the girls receive. The Visakha Girls’ School received a generous grant from BGR for its lunch program in 2016-17. The funds were funneled through Jamyang Foundation. With that grant, lunches were offered to students daily. The meals included freshly cooked rice, dhal, and locally grown vegetables. The BGR grant was used to pay the salary of the cook, and to purchase cooking pots, kitchen utensils, storage cabinets, and so on. Since meat is not served, vegetable sources of protein are offered instead.
Here are the stories of three girls at Visakha Girls’ School:
- Ushyang Marma Marma is a 3rd grade student. Her parents are day laborers and earn extra cash by collecting and selling firewood from the forest. She and her two sisters attend Visakha Girls’ School. Her parents cannot afford the financial burden of educating these girls. She is grateful that she and her sisters receive free education and lunches at school. The lunches and the opportunity to attend school are a great help to her family.
- Mamanyeu Marma is a 5th grade student. There are 11 members in her very poor farming family. Her parents never received any education at all. Four of her other sisters also attended Visakha Girls’ School. Her eldest sister is now a 2nd year college student. Despite the poverty of her family, she is hoping to receive a college education, too, so that she will be able to help her family. All of these advantages have been possible because of Visakha Girls’ School. The free education and free lunches at school have made a very significant difference in her family.
- Ushainda Marma is a 4th grader. Her father is a poor farmer. There are five sisters in her family. Her home is 2 km from the Visakha School. Before the school lunch program began, she got tired and hungry after walking this long distance each day. The school lunch program benefits her and her family a lot. She does not need to worry about whether her family has food or not, because now she gets at least one meal a day and education at school. She aspires to become a teacher when she grows up.
The lunch program is a great help for the families and girls who attend Visakha Girls’ School. It is beneficial in all the ways described above. It helps to draw students to school and helps with retention. In an area plagued by chronic poverty, malnutrition, lack of basic hygiene, poor transportation, and other challenges, the school lunch program supported by BGR has been a dream come true for the girls. We deeply appreciate the kind help of BGR. Thank you.