Archive for the ‘Published work’ Category

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The people’s war

September 16, 2009

Tahmina Shafique writes about the exhibition in London that records and retells the birth of Bangladesh and the images that bring to life the resilence and melancholy of people during 1971

Those who have lived through the war of independence in 1971, speak of it with tears of pride and inexplicable melancholy. Often, they struggle to fight back tears and find words that would perhaps justify the depths of the movement- the depth of the extraordinary power, resilence and belief of the people.

More often than not, they say, words fail to do justice- to the desperation, to the strength, to the struggles, the desperate cries, the haunting memories, the images, the bloodsheds and more.

True, words fail to justify even the bloodiest war of the twentieth century. And more often, words seem to die and with that a part of history seems to fade. So has the history of 1971 in so many ways. Even though the war stands till date as the worst genocide of World War II era – the number of deaths being well into seven figures, outstripping Rwanda (800,000 killed) and probably surpassing even Indonesia (1 million to 1.5 million killed in 1965-66), it remains to be a largely unacknowledged event in the history of the world.

The larger part of the world population seem to have very little knowledge and awareness concerning the campaign of violence on the part of the Pakistani army as the Bengali people of the then East Pakistan sought to achieve political sovereignty.

Thirty seven years on, the war remains to be a contested issue- those who had seen the war continue to fight to pass on the true stories to the next generation and at the same time fight between emotional and psychological intensity that the war left within them.

In the past 37 years, so much has been written, so much told, yet it is felt that none of it could bring to the life the true images of the war, none of it could justify what this people’s war meant.

Yet, amidst these, photographs speak the tale of the war that time may have forgotten. It is also true that war photographs remain to be powerful in history- because of the intensity – both emotional and physical that it portrays, but also perhaps the photographs of 1971 stand out for several other reasons. More than anything else, the photographers seem to stand out for the one fact that it was the people’s war- not the armies- but people- farmers, villagers, man, woman and child.

This month as an exhibition titled ‘Bangladesh 1971’ takes place at the Rivington Place public gallery in Shoreditch, East London, they retell the tale of the war visually, bringing back painful memories to Bangladeshis and leaving others in awe. These photographs of the war taken in 1971 bring to life the very images of the beginning of a dream- the movement of people and the birth of Bangladesh.

In this exhibition, most were amateur photographers at that time, men who just happened to hold a camera when they found themselves caught up in the war. For almost two decades, Shahidul Alam – director of the Drik, the photography Library in Dhaka and a curator of the current exhibition along with Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph ABP – went beyond the struggle to justify the war with words and collected these photos, visiting the photographers in their homes and saving their negatives.

These images taken by these accidental archivists, 37 years later have gone on to become an intimate, reflexive portrait of the war, ranging from photographs that are well known to others that have never been seen in public.

The exhibition consists of more than 100 images organised in loose chronology that begins with the first resistance of the Bengalis, to the Pakistani occupation. The exhibition portrays some powerful images. The spirit and resilience of 1969-70, when war was imminent is captured most powerfully by Rashid Talukdar’s image of a ten-year-old bare feet boy, leading a street march and shouting ecstatically and leading the group.

The collection includes many iconic images of war: Abdul Hamid Raihan’s image of two children staring into the distance, a carpet of missiles scattered at their feet; Mohammed Shafi’s portrait of a freedom fighter – a boy who could be from anywhere – reveals a young man’s fear despite his attempt at studied resolve. Other images depict the horror and the haunting night mares that many speak of till date.

On the night of December 14, knowing they were about to lose the war, the Pakistani army and its local paramilitary allies massacred the future doctors, teachers, lawyers, and writers of Bangladesh in an effort to cripple the new nation. The bodies were not found until after independence, when a mass grave was discovered in the city. The exhibition includes a powerful image of this massacre- a ghostlike face surrounded by submerged bricks and covered in a thin sheen of mud.

Bangladesh 1971 also showcases the many portraits of the slaughter. A photograph shows a uniformed man circled by a large crowd, stabbing a civilian with a bayonet; the caption tells us that it is not a Pakistani soldier but a Bengali one, attacking a local man who has collaborated with the army, is outstanding. According to reports, at Alam’s first exhibition of war photos in Bangladesh, the government had requested that he removed this image, in which the roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. His refusal led to the exhibition being shown at a private gallery rather than at the National Museum.

It is here that Alam is most successful in bringing the untold tales of the war and the complexities of the many roles played. The exhibition in all, documents the political story, the landslide election victory of Sheikh Mujib, the betrayals by collaborators, the massacre of intellectuals two days before the surrender of the Pakistani forces – and at the same time it reveals other stories- some untold, some silent.

Walking out in the newly liberated town of Mymensingh, the photographer Naib Uddin Ahmed had come across woman who had been raped and tortured by the Pakistani army: his picture of a woman covering her face with her hair bears witness to the contradictory state policy regarding such women and the powerful image seems to speak louder than words.

Another powerful image that showcases women’s struggle and their actions in the war is the image of women preparing for battle prior to the crackdown of March 25, 1971. The exhibition includes many more photographs- idyllic image of two women wading through a pond with a basket of flowers, carrying grenades covered with water hyacinth- show the strong role played by women. The countless images, a visual testament to the trauma and hope of independence.

Some of the photographers were also of actual freedom fighters, like Mohammad Shafi, whose diaries, buried underground and recovered after the war, are the only non-photographic artefacts on display. Alam characterises these Bangladeshi photographers as freedom fighters for the huge personal risks they took to preserve the only ‘physical documentation of this war’.

As Bangladesh 1971, a visual journey into the birth of Bangladesh brings to life the memories to many and awes the rest, thousands of miles away from home, in many ways at an important political time such as this, important questions once again appear and linger on- have we as a nation paid respect to those who fought for independence? Are we still fighting another fight?

http://www.newagebd.com/2008/apr/18/apr18/xtra_inner5.html

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Talking Gender Parity

March 19, 2009

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Tahmina Shafique recaps the steep climb for women’s rights in Bangladesh, starting from the initiation of the National Women’s Development Policy in 1997 and the follow up, or lack thereof


photo by Al-Emrun Garjon

Like every year, this month we will be celebrating International Woman’s Day across the world. This is presumably the day when women on all continents, despite differences of class, ethnicity, culture and economy come together to celebrate their day. It is a day to reflect back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.

It is in this very month that once again the fact dawns that Women’s Day, in a country such as Bangladesh that is structured and characterised by patriarchy, is till date a singular attempt to recognise the fundamental right of a woman and the need for change in our inherent social norms that further isolate a woman from her right to protection, freedom and decision making.

Yet again, Bangladeshi women find themselves sifting through the tales of many movements, protests and struggles.

According to a recent survey report released by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights organisation based in Dhaka, violence against women claimed 518 lives across the country last year. Of the victims, 172 women were killed over dowry and 246 in domestic violence while 83 killed after rape. The list also includes 17 female domestic helps.

Besides that, 367 more women were raped and eight of them committed suicide during the one-year period. Two domestic helps also committed suicide. Twenty women fell victim to fatwas (religious edict).

The report points out that a total of 168 people were killed in shootouts with the law enforcers and 68 people died in the police and jail custody in 2008.

Add to this, according to a study undertaken by the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Diseases and Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B), about 60 per cent of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) have been physically or sexually abused during their lifetimes. The finding was based on a survey of over 3,130 women.

These statistics are sheer reflections of the struggles that Bangladeshi women face in several spheres. It is here, that important questions begin to appear. In a nation where violence against women is a major issue and where a large segment of the women fight for their basic minimum rights, let alone any other, one cannot help but wonder as to why the state does not step up. Why is the much talked about National Women’s Development Policy yet to be implemented?

‘We really need to have the policy implemented,’ says Ayesha Khanam, president, Mahila Parishad. ‘How much longer are we going to wait?’

In the election manifesto of the Awami League, there was great emphasis on working for women empowerment. The manifesto read, ‘In order to ensure women’s empowerment and equality in rights and opportunities, the Women Development Policy formulated by Awami League in 1997 will be revived. The number of reserved seats for women by direct election in the Parliament will be increased to 100. Necessary measures will be taken for appointment of women in senior posts in the administration and in all spheres of employment. Strictest legal measures will be taken to stop oppression of women. Discriminatory laws against the interest of women will be rectified.’

Over a month after AL has assumed its seat, we are yet to see any concrete steps being taken. This past month, several women’s right organisations including Bangladesh Mahila Parishad demanded the immediate implementation of the National Women’s Development Policy of 1997.

The policy needs to be implemented urgently and immediately and this should have been on the top of the present government’s mandate, say women activists. There is a reason for this sense of urgency.

In the past one decade, there has been the constant struggle of women rights groups to voice these very rights that are still confronted with the most medieval of customs, constraints and abuses. Although the movement has made great strides in several ways, in adopting a global perspective on women’s issues, and translating and adapting that perspective into ground level reality, they continue to struggle on certain issues. Despite all that has been achieved, gender parity is still a distant milepost, because of a specific, political, anti-women agenda of the day – which is narrow and regressive, say experts.

More importantly the sense of urgency comes due to the sheer challenge that has been seen in implementing this policy that has been due for over a decade now.

The long cycle

The National Women’s Development Policy in Bangladesh dates back to 1997, which was the result of long struggle of women’s movement in Bangladesh which indicated equal status and sharing of power for women in written document.

‘It was one of the major successes of our time, to introduce such a policy where major issues such as women’s reproductive rights and equal inheritance rights and more were included,’ points out Dipu Moni, foreign minister, also secretary, Women’s Affairs, Awami League and a lawyer and public health expert.

The original policy was formulated in 1997, following the United Nation’s Beijing Women’s Conference, directly involving activists and thinkers in the process. The policy adopted by the AL-led government in 1997 said that steps would be taken to provide women with ‘equal opportunities and share of resources, employment, market and businesses’. Underlining the importance of ‘economic empowerment of women’, the 1997 policy stressed their ‘full opportunity of owning and equal right over controlling property, earned through better health, education, training, lifelong education, vocational/technical training, information, employment opportunities, inheritance, resources, credit facilities and market management and their right to land’. The policy also stressed the need of ‘enacting fresh laws required to put these rights into practice’.

The 1997 policy had 104 principles, grouped into 14 areas of concern. While the policy was an eye-opener, and in several ways a landmark in the form of a written document, the government failed to implement it.

In May 2004, the BNP-led government’s policy, adopted the policy – almost a duplicate of the one adopted by the government of the Awami League in March 1997. ‘But while copying it, they deliberately changed, as well as dropped, certain words, phrases and paragraphs, making the policy document much worse, undermining some democratic responsibilities of the state to empower women, particularly in terms of ensuring equal political, economic and other material rights,’ says Ayesha.

In addition the 2004 policy adopted by the BNP-led government dropped the idea of providing women with ‘share of resources’, let alone equal share. Furthermore, the idea of women acquiring property through ‘inheritance’ on the one hand and the ‘right to land’ on the other was excluded.

The 1997 policy clearly valued the role of the women’s rights movement and NGOs. While sidetracking this issue, the new policy had also dropped the principle of inspiring these two groups of actors to take up campaigns for encouraging women’s participation in politics. On violence against women, the 1997 policy expressed concern about state or police violence and community edicts subjecting women to public lashing, stoning, even burning to death. The 2004 policy did away with all of this.

The 1997 policy also highlighted ‘induction of a significant number of women in the cabinet, the highest decision-making forum (of the government), under the relevant articles of the constitution, if necessary’. The 2004 policy diluted the need for inducting ‘a significant number of women’, particularly in the cabinet, by technically re-phrasing the sentence. It opted for induction of ‘a significant number of women’ in the decision-making bodies ‘at all levels’, ignoring the importance of the presence of more women in the cabinet.

Finally, last year, in 2008, the policy the military-controlled interim government tabled the National Women’s Development Policy (NWDP) 2008, but with that important questions were raised as to why the content of the policy had omissions and lacked clear and detailed issues that needed to be considered. Above that, the recent outrage of religious clerics and different Islamist radical groups, have given rise to suspicions of political machinations, say some women rights activists. The policy was attacked in processions and protests by a section of the Islamist groups. Several thousand activists of different Islamist outfits staged demonstrations protesting the policy and demanding its immediate withdrawal.

‘The policy brings to life some actions and beliefs of the state,’ points out Farida Akhter, a women’s rights activist and head of Nari Grantha Prabartana, a Dhaka-based NGO. ‘When we had protests on the streets by women, police chose to hit women and stop them. Yet when other groups, who are undoubtedly anti-women rights, came on the streets giving religious excuses in 2008, we saw the state defending itself, justifying its steps, giving explanations to anti-women rights groups. What does that reflect?’ she asks.

About time

Experts agree that the 1997 policy introduced by AL by far, among all the others introduced the best reflections of issues to be addressed. As the manifesto of the present government suggests, it is expected that the policy will be implemented. But at the same time, it is important to note that after 11 long years, the policy needs to have further progress in terms of empowerment in education, jobs and more. As the manifesto points out, seats for women would be increased to 100, indeed a laudable step, if implemented, given the decade-long fight of women for this significant political right.

Needless, to say that the challenge for the present government comes in several folds. For one, it is likely that given that the 1997 policy is followed without the omissions made, it is a test for this government to fight through the expected chaos and protests by religious groups – specifically in case of equal property rights.

‘Through this new law they want to teach us what we know and practice before them,’ said Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, assistant general secretary, Jamaat-e-Islami. ‘Is there equality between man and man in society? Some men are rich and some have nothing, so where is equality? The idea of equality is vague, what we can do is to reduce the existing difference between man and woman. This step has been against Islam and all of the recent actions show that politically the state wants to show that we are not for women’s right but the truth is Islam does ensure women’s rights.’

According to the constitution of Bangladesh, section 19, Equality of opportunity, sub clause 2, it is stated clearly that ‘The State shall adopt effective measures to remove social and economic inequality between man and man and to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth among citizens, and of opportunities in order to attain a uniform level of economic development throughout the Republic’.

The constitution clearly says any law inconsistent with the equality rights will become void. The government can discard religion-based personal laws. Instead it is regularly stated that discriminatory laws in inheritance, rights in marriage or divorce cannot be touched because that would hurt religious sentiments. ‘Personal values in religions are always applicable, but that does not mean that we cannot have a state policy that supports equality in all spheres,’ states Ayesha.

It is here that formulation of uniform family code becomes significant. ‘Women in different religions get different shares of properties – equal in some religions and less in others. Our demand was to formulate a uniform family code giving women equal rights. The issue was not made clear in the policy,’ said Sultana Kamal.

A Uniform Family Code is still a far cry, believe women activists, yet it is not impossible.

To challenge personal laws is to go against religion and challenge the constitution of Bangladesh, which declares Islam as the state religion, which will be the basis of all actions. While many Muslim countries have ratified CEDAW and included Uniform Family Code, it is yet to be widespread. With this government, it is hoped that that there will be the courage to break tradition.

The choices for this government remain quite clear. With over a decade of rule with two women as the head of the state, it is not too much to ask that the policy be taken a close look at, in the current context and implement what has been the right of women in Bangladesh.

http://www.newagebd.com/2009/mar/06/mar06/xtra_inner2.html

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Ensuring our right to Know

October 26, 2008
Tahmina Shafique points out why we need the Right to Information Act, the strength and loopholes of the recently drafted ordinance and how it may require many years before the Act is put to real use


illustration by Khamin

For most of the Bangladeshi citizens, some of the worst and horrid experiences perhaps involve dealing with public institutions and government officials.

From getting a passport to a tax paper or just a birth certificate, include weeks, and more often months of running from one desk to the other, standing at the gates and corridors, coaxing the sleepy and ignorant officials to get through the officer-in-charge.

In the first week, you will probably try to figure out who the actual person responsible for providing your information is. This will involve you going to one desk, wait for a few hours and be told to go to another desk and the week will end by the time you know who to contact.

If by some luck, you get through the actual person who will get your work done, you must wait for a few more hours until he finishes his cup of tea, or even just sit up from his slouching position, reach his hands out, and take out the piece of paper from the file.

Most often, it will depend on his mood really. If he wishes to, he may ask you to come back anywhere between the next day to the next one year, to inform you that either he does not have it or as a responsible official he cannot disclose it.

‘It’s a nightmare to even think of approaching any of the public institutions for any form of information,’ says Golam Mostafa, a businessman. ‘You would rather pay your way through, than to run through months, from one desk to the other, one place to the other to get any form of information out. Go ask any relevant government institution that – just from starting up your own business to wanting information concerning investing, banks and license – you are bound to go through this painful and lengthy procedure.’

Similar are experiences at a police station. ‘It’s an experience you would rather not have,’ says Imran Asam, a student. ‘This one time, I went to the station to find out about the status of a report we had made about our stolen car. I was asked to sit for hours, and then at the end asked to come the next week. Three weeks down the line, I was told the file was not found and that I should come later- it’s been two years, and do I dare ask the status of the case?’

If you are a journalist, who is ought to be able to enjoy outmost press freedom and the right to information, it’s not any different. One of the most dreadful task for you then will be to get a comment from a government official or just a piece of information- a document from a ministry.

You call his office repeatedly only to receive the ‘sir is at a meeting’ or ‘please call an hour later’ reply. Then, having tried and failed to get him on the phone for a couple of days, you decide to go to the relevant ministry or division or department.

Inside the ministry building, you move around from one room to the other, if ‘sir is not in his seat’, asking the grumpy assistants for his whereabouts. The personal officer takes time to inform ‘sir’ that you are there. If you have the patience, and you are persistent enough, ‘sir’ has a minute for you before a very important meeting.

He informs you, on some occasions eagerly and on others dismissively, that either his superior officer is only authorised to speak on the matter or a junior officer is better informed to speak about it. Of course, the senior officer refers you to the same or a different junior officer. Only the most polite official will take his time to explain to you that as a government official he or she is bound by the ‘Official Secrets Act’ not to speak to you. Not that he wants to speak either.

In case of the many policies and laws being drafted and approved, there is hardly any information that a citizen is aware of. ‘One week you hear a lot in the news about debates over a certain policy or law being drafted, and a few months later, one fine morning you hear that a new policy or a law is in place, and you hardly know what it is all about and it is supposedly impacting your life,’ says Salma Huq, a lecturer at a private university in Dhaka.

Supposedly, a citizen, according to the constitution of Bangladesh, has the right to information. Over the years, across the globe it has been constantly stressed that every citizen must have access to information in all spheres of life. According to experts, access to information in specifically public bodies have been of outmost need as the public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good.

‘They should provide us with those pieces of information that they hold because it is our information entrusted in their hands, not their information,’ says Ayesha Khanam, President, Mahila Parishad. ‘A democratic society must have access to information, as it is a tool of power and development which are crucially important for the growth of a nation.’

In 1997 the UN Commission on Human Rights issued a request to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression to look closely into the right to seek and receive information, as the earlier provisions did not impose a corresponding duty to any entity. In 1998, the Special Rapporteur reported on the issue and notes that ‘The right to seek, receive and impart information imposes a positive obligation on states to ensure access to information, particularly with regard to information held by governments in all types of storage and retrieval systems.’

According to article 19 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, and article 19 (2) of the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, both of which deal with freedom of expression and both of which Bangladesh has ratified, the right to seek, receive and impart information is an inalienable right of every individual. Bangladesh is further party to the Vienna Convention, the Limburg Declaration and the Bangalore Colloquium, which makes it a legal obligation of the state to introduce the right to information in domestic laws. So far, 75 countries in the world, including neighbouring India, have ensured the ‘right to information’ of its citizens through the enactment of laws under different titles.

Right to Information Ordinance 2008

In a modern democratic state, ‘the right to information,’ more popularly described as the ‘right to know,’ is a prerequisite. It is in view of this, that last month, on September 20, following years of debate, that the Right to Information Ordinance 2008 was finalised.

According to Article 4 of the Ordinance, section A states that ‘Every citizen shall have the right to information and every citizen, through application or request, shall know any decision, written proceedings of or any work performed or proposed to be performed by any authority’.

‘It’s a step that was long over due and certainly something we welcome,’ says Abdul Matin Khasru, former law minister. ‘Although initially the government had undertaken a participatory approach in drafting the ordinance, it was not so later on. There was a need for participation of many stakeholders throughout, but since the ordinance will be placed in the parliament for approval, it can be amended.’

The finalisation of this act comes in two folds- for one it is, as Khasru points out a step that has been long overdue, and indeed a progressive move. The other overriding impact of this ordinance is the fact that it has not taken into consideration of various issues and points, tabled by various stakeholders including the media.

‘Earlier on, Bangladesh did not have any specific ordinance that related directly to people’s right to know. Rather, what it had were certain clauses,’ says Khasru.

These clauses are Official Secrets Act 1923, Evidence Act 1872, Rules of Business 1996, Government Servants (Conduct) Rules 1979, and the oath (affirmation) of secrecy under the constitution act as an impediment and barrier to getting access to information.

While clause 5(1) of the Official Secrets Act has been designed to protect military and strategic secrets, on many occasions, it has been the most popular excuse of government officials to deny information. Section 123 of the 135-year old Evidence Act stipulates that only the head of the department of any government machinery holds power to disclose information. The more recent Rules of Business specifically bars government officials from disclosing information to members of the press. Crucially still, government servants are bound by both their oath and service rules to refrain from disclosing information.

In 2002, the Information Commission drafted the ordinance which was in pipeline till date. The proposed act included clauses such information being properly recorded, catalogued and indexed, the publication of information, the procedure for the access to information which includes a fee of Tk 5 and a time limit of fifteen days, as well as exceptions and enforcement measures.

The ordinance provides for a three-member autonomous information commission headed by a chief information commissioner, mandated with a four-year term, to enforce the law and deal with complaints from the information seekers.

According to reports, the government will appoint staff at the suggestion of the commission to discharge its responsibilities across the country. The president will appoint the chairman and members of the commission at the suggestion of a five-member selection committee headed by a Supreme Court judge.

The others who will be sitting on the commission will be two lawmakers from the treasury and opposition benches of the parliament nominated by the speaker, the cabinet secretary and a government representative.

People will have the right to seek information from public offices in a prescribed form with a fee. The public offices will also maintain information so that the people can get information on demand. In this case, people living below poverty line can apply in white paper without paying fee.

According to experts, there are various dimensions and spheres of life that a Right to Information Act can address, economy being one of the major focuses.

‘Over the years people have been kept in the dark about the economic policies pursued by the government and the direction the economy is taking,’ says Dr Anu Mohammed, a professor of economics at Jahangir Nagar University. ‘That we have signed the GATT and have become a part of global capital control is known and understood by few. Ordinary citizens, who had to pay for this through rising cost of living, did not have a say in it.’

‘In the future, all major contracts including that of oil, gas and coal and strategic papers such as the PRSP will come to the public domain hopefully through the right to information. People can then decide what is best for them and we can avoid events like those in Phulbari,’ adds Anu.

Grey areas

The approved Ordinance, which is expected to be signed into law, has many areas that need ratification, say experts.

According to the Ordinance, ‘As per the ordinance the related officials will supply primary information on issues including arrests and releases within 24 hours.’

‘The scope of the current ordinance is restricted to only “primary issues”,’ points out Rubana Huq, CEO, Mohammadi Group.

‘This clause of the ordinance had 48 hours, following objections, this was reduced to 24 hours,’ says Manjoorul Ahsan Bulbul, Head of News, ATN Bangla.

The ordinance further stipulates officials sitting in new posts to be created in most government offices and NGOs give the people information within 20 days of receiving applications.

Organisations funded by taxpayers’ money and NGOs run on foreign funds are required by the ordinance to ensure people’s right to information, officials who attended the meeting of the council of advisers said.

‘Under this, we feel other organisations including private institutions should be included,’ says Shawkat Mahmood, president, National Press Club. ‘Many functions of private bodies are relevant, the information held by them can equally be important for citizens. People should also have the right to access to those pieces of information held by private bodies that are necessary for the exercise or protection of any other right. This can only ensure a transparent system.’

According to private institutions, however, they should not be liable to such information acts. ‘We provide our balance sheets to joint stocks and other report platforms, what more is required. We are a profit making organisation and all across the world, private institutions are not liable to such laws,’ says a businessman, preferring anonymity.

‘The public sector itself lacks the required infrastructure to provide adequate information. That is an area that needs to be worked on. Right to information is indeed a valid demand. But the public sector has to be first covered completely before moving on to the private,’ says Rubana Huq.

In addition to this, the ordinance has made exemption on six security and intelligence agencies from the reach of the new ordinance. These agencies are often accused of overstepping their legal jurisdiction, point out experts.

‘Criminal Investigation Department of the police will routinely have information it cannot divulge for fear of hampering an ongoing investigation. But the CID personnel are also often accused of harassing innocent citizens and the law should instead have made a distinction in what kind of information this agency would divulge so that a modicum of checks and balances could be ensured,’ says Bulbul.

Similarly, the financial irregularities, the budgetary indiscipline, the lack of accountability, and the alleged political machinations of many of the other agencies, cannot be brought under democratic public oversight under the new law, say experts.

Although welcome, the ordinance did not include the explicit points that the Press Association and others had indicated earlier, says Mahmood.

‘Odhikar believes that the draft Ordinance will curb, rather than extend press freedom, and the people’s right to know,’ says Adilur Rahman Shuvro, director, Odhikar. ‘The draft ordinance proposes the establishment of an Information Commission, which will eventually help the authorities concerned to evade the responsibility of giving information. If the ordinance is promulgated, people- even a journalist – will need to apply in a prescribed form for information and the authority will have the power to reject the application or provide the information sought.’

Challenges

While the ordinance, in many ways does conform to specific rights of citizens to know, many feel that the country does not have the given infrastructure or system to follow this law.

‘RTI has now become a hot topic,’ says Shahdeen Malik, the eminent lawyer. ‘But, practically, the government in its present capacity does not possess the ability to implement the law. Government offices and NGOs registered with the government, who have also been considered under the same law, will need a totally new budget and will need to introduce a new section to disseminate information.’

Government offices will have to change the way they operate and keep efficient computerised records of everything for rapid release of information. The administrative management will have to change. ‘At its current state, it is next to impossible,’ he adds.

‘The idea and its benefits must reach all levels of society and reach throughout the country for it to function properly – which was essentially one of the major reasons for demanding units to be set across the country,’ says Khasru. ‘A person living in Rajshahi or a remote village will not be able to access the provisions of this law.’

‘In a society which is dominated by the culture of secrecy, male domination and conservatism, the right to information can actually empower women, given this is followed,’ says Ayesha Khanam.

It is for time to tell the actual impact of this law, point out experts. ‘Given that time is given and proper system is developed, the country can see the benefits in a few years, if not now. In addition to this, in due time, amendments can also be made to make this RTI an indeed empowering law,’ points out Khasru.

http://www.newagebd.com/2008/oct/24/oct24/xtra_cover.html
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‘I don’t think I am that stupid to take the idea of a national government seriously’

October 10, 2008

Dr Shahdeen Malik, Dean of Law at BRAC University and a legal and political analyst talks to Tahmina Shafique about the future of corruption drives, Hasina-Khaleda talks and the upcoming elections


New Age Photo

It’s been about a year since the anti-corruption drive kicked off in Bangladesh – till date the government has arrested scores of politicians -including two former premiers and dozens of ex-ministers and lawmakers. It was said that the aim was to clean up graft-ridden politics in Bangladesh. Following various turns in the recent events and release of several politicians, how do you see the future of this drive and the Anti-Corruption Commission itself (ACC)?

In short, the future is bleak, if we end up electing corrupt politicians again. However, if reasonably decent politicians can be elected or re-elected, the present anti corruption drive may not lose its momentum. Secondly, our expectation from the anti-corruption drive was probably unrealistic- prior to 2007 we had our main anti-corruption law (prevention of anti-corruption 1947) in the books for the past 60 years. But in the past 60 years, there has not even been 60 successful prosecutions of high profile corrupt persons.

Anti-corruption establishment – the bureau of past anti corruption drive, and present – hardly had sufficient or even reasonable expertise, skills or experience in nailing corrupt persons. The present anti-corruption establishment inherited a large numbers of officials from the past tenure.

The past bureau has been in one word, dysfunctional. The present commission does not have even a single full-time trained prosecutor or lawyer. It has very few investigators with expertise in anti-corruption investigations as such. Given this institutional background, it is not surprising that they have not succeeded tremendously. It is due to these reasons that I am not terribly disappointed. These institutional flaws can be corrected without much difficulty, but one has to recognise these weaknesses and take appropriate steps.

Do you feel that any steps are being taken for these institutional flaws to be corrected, especially after the $150m loan for a good-governance programme granted by ADB – a major portion of which is targeted to go towards the Anti-Corruption Commission?

I am not aware of any form of comprehensive actions or interventions that are being addressed as of yet.

There has been much anticipation over the two top leaders – Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia’s meeting for the first time after almost a year, in the coming days. What are your views?

I do not expect much from this meeting, honestly. Though the meeting has hit the headlines constantly, one or two discussions among these top leaders will not resolve any of the major problems that the country is facing today. I do not think they have any magic lanterns to do so. Since my expectations are too few, I am honestly not much bothered about this meeting.

What are your views concerning the upcoming elections? What do you think this election will bring about?

Logically, the only aspect I can think of is that we would be coming to a formal understanding – meaning this is an umbrella to the legality or validity to the actions undertaken by the present government.

Clearly, there will be constitutional issues to the legality of the caretaker government being in place for a period of more than two years. It is for us to see if the two leaders will validate all the deeds of the present government in the next few weeks and that will probably give a clearer picture for the upcoming elections.

You mentioned the legality of the present government taking over for a period of more than two years. How will this be treated ahead of a ‘credible national election’?

This issue cannot be considered as void. Earlier I had fewer doubts concerning the constitutional validity and continuity of the present government, but increasingly I am becoming doubtful. I feel, some kind of indemnity will be required or at least this will be too important an issue, for the parliament not to consider.

With the elections set to take place after two years, how do you see the idea of a national government in Bangladesh?

I do not think I am that stupid to take that seriously.

It’s been almost a year since the separation of the judiciary. It was assumed that this will result into a well co-ordinated justice system for the country? How do you evaluate its performance?

The public perception, as I understand is that the judiciary is subservient to the government than it was in the recent past. Clearly, so far, I do not think there has been much of a positive outcome or impact of this separation seeking justice in the court of law. Institutional and infrastructural support necessary to the truly separate judiciary is yet to be provided. More disturbingly, there has not been any form of visible effort at enhancing the administrative and managerial capabilities of the judiciary to enable it to administer independently.

A number of dialogues and discussions are coming up for the political parties, how do you see the future of the political parties in Bangladesh?

The purpose of a parliament is to provide a platform for the political parties to oppose. In other words, by definition, a parliament is a place for dialogue between political parties. I do not see why these discussions and meetings need to take place elsewhere. The issue of these meetings have arisen, however, due to the fact that these political parties have not been engaged in the parliament. An alternate to this problem should be to engage them in meaningful dialogues in the parliament.

You have worked extensively in the field of juvenile justice and how do you see the state of the justice system for juvenile at present?

The state has clearly improved to a certain extent. Now if there is any news of arrest regarding children below 16, automatically it creates a stir among the relevant stakeholders. In many instances, judges of the High Court division have taken up their own initiatives.

Secondly, the average number of children detained in jail has gone down significantly – figures show a substantial fall. In major cities across the country at least, police has become aware of juvenile rights. In addition to this, the Department of Social Welfare has started to take appropriate steps – some probationary officers have been appointed. All of these indicate that the juvenile justice system is actually moving ahead. Having said that, there is a need for provisions in the Children Act 1947.

State responsibilities regarding protection and children in distress is hardly being implemented. The State has only taken into account immunization and provision of primary education, to some extent, as a major responsibility while there are many areas that need to be addressed. Children clearly remain marginalised from the standpoint of state responsibilities’ and this certainly calls for desperate change.

There have been various comments made concerning the legality of policies and establishment of commissions during the state of emergency. Is there truly a legal question to such steps taken by the interim government?

I do not really take into account of comments of legality made by Tom, Dick and Harry.

The right to information act was drafted in 2002 and has been under various criticism and debate. According to reports, the act is soon to be finalised and implemented, how do you evaluate the existing draft and also the result of finalisation?

The Right to Information Act has become a sexy topic, at the moment. But, in very short, the state does not possess the system, infrastructure, expertise or capacity to be able to pull of this act. There are bridges that need to be passed before such a system can actually be effective.

http://www.newagebd.com/2008/oct/10/oct10/xtra_inner6.html

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Reeling into the cycle

September 1, 2008

Tahmina Shafique and Sharmin Chowdhury investigate the growing trend of suicides committed by female students of Dhaka University which has compelled the authorities to hire professional counsellors


photo by Momena Jalil

There is a damp and bleak air within the hall that houses hundreds of female students at the Dhaka University.

The long corridors lead to a row of rooms – each about 22 square metres in size and four seated. Apart from four beds the rooms are equipped with four desks and four closets. Most of the rooms are overcrowded, scantily furnished and damp. Outside, female students laze around at the open space throughout the afternoon some chatting away about the recent fashion and films, some hide themselves within the textbooks, and others chat on their cell phone. Inside the hall, at the far end of the corridor, is the room where about three months ago, a student hanged herself from the ceiling fan.

‘It’s still difficult to walk past that room where Sandhya hung herself,’ says a student. ‘It’s still difficult to deal with the feeling that something that might have subjected her to take away her own life will spare me or so many of us around. When I take a step forward, my body seems to stand still and invade me with these sinking thoughts.’

While University authorities have rested on the recent appointment of four counsellors to help these students- the students and teachers seem to be still reeling in the aftermath of what appears to be the fourth student suicide in about eighteen months at Dhaka University female halls.

‘Even though months have passed by, its still gives me nightmares,’ says a student of Rokeya hall, one of the four female hostels at Dhaka University. The suicides of these girls continue to haunt their room-mates and after every suicide the rooms are usually abandoned and then re-allotted to new students who have no connection with the incidents. ‘That is exactly how life revolves around the suicide incidents in the halls of DU,’ she adds.

On April 15 this year, Sandhya Rani Sarker hung herself from a ceiling fan inside her room at the Begum Rokeya Hall. She was a fourth year student of the Institute of Education and Research (IER). ‘She was so bright and wonderful, I do not know where she went wrong,’ says her friend, still disoriented. Sandhya, who hailed from Khulna, was found hanging from the ceiling fan at 2:30pm inside her room No 80 of the extension building of Rokeya hall.

According to her friends, the door of the room was locked from inside and the reasons for her death was unknown and till date a mystery.

Following her death, on June 25, Zohra Khan Progya, also a resident of Rokeya Hall, committed suicide. She was a second year student of law at the university. She was the daughter of Nazimuddin Khan, a teacher of Berua Alia Madrassah and resident of Azmatpur village in Kaliganj upazila of Gazipur, hall authorities said.

Reports suggest that Zohra had a brilliant academic record with GPA 5 in both SSC and HSC examinations. A number of residents of the dormitory said that she was quiet and unassuming and did not exhibit any troubles. They said she used to talk a lot over the cell phone with someone for some days and suspected that she might have a love affair with a Hindu boy and troubles with that affair may have led her to suicide.

‘She returned to the dormitory from home on Saturday and was looking normal and the next morning she was found dead,’ whispers one of the students.

The trend of suicides has been alarmingly on the rise specifically among Dhaka University students, the largest and the top public university in the country that houses more than 32,000 students. The impact of such frequent deaths has been felt deeply by the students and staff members. In the past five year, reports suggest that more than 11 students have committed suicide, nine of whom where women.

This past month, following the suicide of four Dhaka University students in the Rokeya hall in just one and a half year, the University authorities stepped up to take a much needed and long overdue step – appointing psychiatric consultants to each of the four female dormitories of the university to counsel the students.

According to the university vice-chancellor, SMA Faiz, the increasing cases of such suicides among the Dhaka University students, especially female students, had prompted them to appoint psychologists in the dormitories. ‘Considering the gravity of the situation, we needed to take immediate action and appoint psychologists in dormitories,’ said Prof SMA Faiz. ‘Usually any form of appointment requires approval from the University Grants Commission, but in this case we did not wait for the approval. We have already posted advertisement while the commission is working on the approval.’

Nine psychologists will be appointed for five residential halls, two each at Rokeya Hall, Shamsunnahar Hall, Kuwait Maitree Hall, Fazilatunnisa Mujib Hall – and one in Nawab Faizunnisa Hall.

Over the past years, for these students, there has been only one psychologist working at the students counselling and guidance centre of the university. Recent steps suggest that there will regular counselling undertaken by peer groups trained by the team of counsellors.

The university walls are now pasted with adverts and notices concerning this new initiation that is hoped to reduce the alarming rates of suicides in the recent years. While, this remains to be an issue of much discussion and anticipation, many doubt the effectiveness of such a step.

‘There are many dimensions to counselling,’ says Ferdousi Hannan, professor, department of sociology. ‘For one this sessions need to be effective and each student need to be given separate time and attention. To what extent can peer groups really make a difference in such cases is a major question.’

The environment and ambience of the hall itself has a major role to play in the well-being of these women, adds Hannan.

Professor Nazma Shaheen, shares her experience of the first suicide case she handled as a house-tutor of Rokeya Hall of the university. ‘The first suicide case I handled was, most probably, two and a half years ago, during the month of Ramadan. A female student committed suicide by taking Marshal, an insecticide. She was admitted to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital (DMCH). I and the provost rushed there immediately and the doctors said that they wanted to shift her in ventilation. We were trying to arrange everything but by the time I returned, she had died.’

Professor Nazma Shaheen has seen some more deaths like this which have left her upset and disturbed. She points out one of the factors for such occurrences as the way in which a woman is reared since childhood in Bangladeshi society.

‘So far, I observed most of the families rear their female children in a way that their main aim is to get an established or wealthy husband. But there is a lack of proper guidance. Most of the female students don’t know how to handle the relations with their boyfriends; they give away everything and continue to do so before getting betrayed. Finally, they become so emotional that they think their life is finished; they don’t even share their problems with any one, and get into depression and end up committing suicide.’

‘Most young women in Bangladesh suffer from low self-esteem. From childhood they are brought up in such a way that they become dependent on others,’ says Prof Shaheen Islam of DU psychology department and director of the Students Counselling and Guidance Centre. ‘So, when a relationship breaks, they feel ignored and insignificant. They take desperate action thinking that they have no other purpose in life. Other young people with similar problems often imitate such action leading to a suicidal tendency.’

Mehtab Khanam, professor, department of psychology, University of Dhaka thinks that the majority of the cases involve relationship issues, which seem to affect these students tremendously.

She says, ‘One of the major problems with these cases is that they get involved in undefined relationships meaning they seem to confuse their needs. They hardly give any thought as to whether they can actually afford it in the long run. So, on one hand one partner gets deeply involved and the other backs of, it hits them. They cannot seem to accept such betrayal and chose to commit suicide as they see it as the end of their life.’

In August 2007, Sabera Yasmin Papri committed suicide by swallowing sleeping pills in less than two months after another suicide incident. She was a third year student of the Institute of Fine Art and a resident of room no 112 of Bangladesh-Kuwait Maitree Hall, who died at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. According to the provost of the dormitory, Professor Tahmina Akter, she had found out from her friends that Papri had phoned one of her friends from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) campus at around 1:30pm, requesting her to save her life as she had swallowed more than 50 sleeping pills. Following this phone call, her friends rushed her to the hospital, where her stomach was washed, a few minutes after which she died.

According to her friends, Papri was in love with an MBA marketing student of the university and their relationship was getting bad for a few days.

The incidents leave a detrimental impact on the other residents of the hall. The friends and neighbours fail to believe that their friends have taken their own lives. Dipa, a friend of Sandhya Rani Sarker, said Shandhya died the day after Pahela Boishakh, ‘she wore a saree on April 14 and looked happy all day during the celebration, it was so shocking for us when we heard she was no more the very next day.’

There is also the problem of adjusting to a new environment; as the residents of halls do not belong to the city, they find it very strange here and fail to adjust. At home they are under strict monitoring, which is not possible here, so they do whatever they want and get into trouble, points out a house tutor.

Getting into wired relationships is seen as a major reason of girl’s suffering from depression. ‘Since the girls stay away from their families they do not get proper guidance, they end up having wired relationships, like Hindu girl with Muslim boy, rich with poor, young with old, and then start having problems in their families, and finding nowhere to go they become frustrated and commit suicide,’ says Mosammet Asma Jahan, part-time house tutor, Rokeya hall, DU.

While majority of the cases, do point towards failure in relationships and being cheated by boyfriends as one of the prime reason for such suicide incidents, many also point towards the setting of the halls and the University itself. Over the years, there have been countless cases, where students had committed suicide due to academic reasons, financial problems and often unknown depression.

For some, a part of the reason comes from the fact that being a student of Dhaka University means that the students take up their academic achievement way seriously. ‘Being a part of the top university means that you are one of the thousands who had strived to be a part of it and when you fail to live up to the expectations and standards its depressing,’ says a student of Department of Economics.

On June 4, a Masters student of Economics Antu hanged herself in their residence in Paribagh after she failed to get a first class for four marks. ‘She had been extremely depressed over this issue and repeatedly mentioned how we would never understand why it meant so much to her.’

Sometimes, financial problems also lead the students towards frustration. Khadija, a resident of Rokeya hall hung herself supposedly because of financial crisis. She had an affair with a private university student; her family did not accept it and stopped supporting her financially. She then started doing tuitions. For some reason she could not continue her job and was suffering from financial problems. It is suspected that money-crisis led her towards frustration and committing suicide.

‘The setting of the university halls is also an important factor. The halls need to be improved environment and hygiene is a major issue to be considered,’ says Ferdous Hannan.

There are also stringent rules in the halls. The gates open at 6 am and close at 9.30 at most. If someone has to come late, she needs to have late permission, if someone wants to stay out she needs to inform beforehand, but it is not very effective as there are too many students in the halls.

The house tutors time to time counsel the students if they find them upset or see anything wrong. They have observed that the group counselling has not been very fruitful as it does not reach the students on an individual level. Recently, they have brought in Prof Sadeka Halim, Dr Mehtab Khanam, Dr Shaheen Islam (counsellor) and many more to have discussions with the students.

Most of the suicides seem to have taken place in Rokeya hall. Being the largest one with around 1500 students this hall has more risk of such mishaps than other halls. Though according to other hall’s residents this is the hall with all facilities; there are single beds, attached baths and individual lockers, students of this hall has a greater tendency to commit suicide. ‘Maybe it is because of the influences of other suicide incidents that happened around them,’ says a tutor of Moitree Hall.

‘The mental wellbeing of these students can be greatly ensured through the improvements made in the hall and identifying the problems that they go through- independent lifestyle, politics, academic pressure, family problems and much more,’ says Hannan.

Many feel that the sudden freedom that these women get is also a major factor. It is understood that the innocent village girls struggle to cope with the city life here, sometimes get entangled in problems, make mistakes and do not share and this in turn push them to harm themselves at the end of the day.

‘Communicating, with friends and family no matter where you live is very important,’ says a student. The students also think that it is important to have control over your desires. Imu a resident of Shamsunnahar hall said, ‘Friendship is something that can help you out of all sorts of trouble. If we see any of our friends upset, we’ll make her smile by hook or crook, but those who stay aloof, cannot really fight with the odds around here.’

Dipa said, ‘A father whose daughter committed suicide after being pregnant wrote a letter to us saying that her daughter could have shared that with her parents, because she meant a lot to them, but his daughter did not dare to share her mistake since she thought she made the ultimate mistake of her life. Her father also suggested us not to do any of the stuff like his daughter did.’

Whatever the issues maybe, the situation calls for desperate help. While counselling is a step forward to improving the situation there is also a need for proper examination, individual attention given in making psychological well-being a part of the over all system.

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Primary education’s moment of truth

June 28, 2008

Amidst the furore of protests and denials, Tahmina Shafique unravels the confusions that characterise a perceptible shift in the country’s primary education policy


photo by AL-EMRUN GARJON/MASUD ALAM LITON

For nine-year-old Hamid, the primary school that he goes to in old Dhaka is only associated with horror and repulsion. Not the regular horror and repulsion that all children feel towards schooling, this is worse and justified too. Despite the orders of their apparently omnipotent parents, many children in the neighbourhood are refusing to go to school. ‘And why wouldn’t they?’ asks a mother of two primary school students, in Lalbagh. ‘The state of primary schools is depressing – not only do they fail to offer an encouraging environment for children but they also provide unskilled and crude teachers, who seem to find it very difficult to understand children.’

For this teacher, who has completed her HSC examination two years ago, teaching itself is a rigour and she follows the same Victorian system, the conventional way of having children learn a prescribed syllabus by rote. ‘Sometimes I just lose my nerve trying to make sure that we get done with the syllabus and have them memorise everything- after all, if they don’t then they don’t learn,’ she explains confidently.

‘But the job itself is frustrating. I stay here for long hours and in return get almost nothing for a salary. Where is my motivation to do better?’ While teachers themselves understand the need for quality, they say there is little scope for further on the job training.

Parents meanwhile are continually struggling to make sure that their children are getting a quality education even though they attend school. ‘I do not even know what my daughter should learn by the time she passes primary education- she continues to memorise the given tasks and there seems to be nothing beyond that. Add to that, most often she does not seem to enjoy school because of the teacher’s behaviour and the environment,’ says Selina Begum, a mother of three, living in Kakrail.

As one can imagine, the frustration is mutual for students, parents and teachers. ‘I left school when I was 11,’ says thirteen-year-old Maliha, referring to a Bogra based primary school. ‘All we did at school was memorise lines that never made sense to me, and if I could not do so, the teacher would mistreat me and often hit me. At the end, I just stopped going to school.’

‘Those who complete primary education do not end up receiving basic competencies and more often than not, the achievement from it is nil,’ admits a government primary school head teacher, based in Dhaka’s Paltan. ‘So even though we see high enrolment, the quality of education has not improved. The whole idea of delivering these children certain skills is not achieved at the end.’

Primary education strategists, researchers and experts suggest that success is achieved only when students are engaged as real participants in the learning process. But instead, the primary education system has been evolved in a way where the students, instead of being partners and active participants, very soon after their entry into schools, turn into passive participants, subordinates and lose all initiatives and interest in studies and ultimately turn into dropouts. This dropout rate, no doubt compounded by factors such as poverty, has translated into 47 percent this year, a total of 15 per cent increase in two years.

According to recent reports, Bangladesh has about 16.5 million children attending 80,395 official primary schools where more than 320,000 teachers are employed, with many secondary level schools having primary facilities. In addition to that, there are more than 20,000 informal primary schools run by NGOs and the private sector where children are taught up to the third grade.

More than 65 per cent of primary schools are under direct government management, with the rest registered as non-governmental schools, receiving assistance, support and being subsidised by the government. It is also undeniable that primary education has expanded significantly, in the past decade.

While it is noted that some primary schools have improved significantly, and the country has made considerable progress towards achieving the millennium development goal of universal primary education, the state of primary schools in general, across the country, specifically remote districts is of dubious quality.

Add to that, this past month, the country saw protests from organisations of primary school teachers and associations protesting against the government’s recent decision to hand over the responsibility of supervision of primary schools in 20 Upazilas across the country. While state-run primary education is crumbling due to sheer failure in management and operation, some see the move to involve non-government actors in training teachers as a pre-cursor to a shift towards privatising primary education – an allegation that BRAC has denied squarely.

‘We will be dealing with only the quality of education and work on reducing the drop out rate,’ explains Anwarul Haque, director of Public affairs and Communications at BRAC. ‘We are not dealing with any form of administrative intervention or taking over primary schools. Our aim is to purely work on quality that needs major attention. The protests have come as a result of the inherent perception that people seem to have about NGOs and their fear of privatization of the primary education system.’

Despite these explanations, experts feel the move was undefined and unclear. ‘This was not discussed earlier and even though BRAC claims that they are not looking at the administrative issue and do not have much control, documents and notices clearly suggest that BRAC is being given a major responsibility of managing the primary schools in 20 Upazilas,’ says Zafar Iqbal, writer and educationist.

‘While this is understandable that there is a need for improvement, the larger issue here is the fact that BRAC specialises in non-formal primary education program rather than a formal system as this and these 20 upazilas consist of a huge number of schools. Therefore, the matter needed to be sorted more carefully,’ Iqbal says.

Experts also continue to point out, that primary education should remain under the government and private sector control can prove to be damaging.

According to the Article 17 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, primary education shall be the responsibility of the State. To bear this responsibility primary education in Bangladesh underwent a great deal of changes and development during the last few years, but the issue of quality and structure remain to be a matter of great magnitude and national concern.

‘Bangladesh does have one of the largest universal primary education systems in the world,’ says Salma Akhter, professor, Institute of Education and Research (IER), University of Dhaka. ‘It is noted that education system has expanded and reached out greater number of students. But the larger question remains that how much have we achieved in terms of quality? And how much has been actually the learning achievement?’

According to professor Maniruzzaman Miah, former vice chancellor of Dhaka University and chairman of National Education Council, ‘The standard is much less than desirable but the problem is in the teachers’ quality, management and monitoring system. Primary education must not be only text book based; it should propagate knowledge.’

Yet, over the years any form of increase in budgetary allocation for development of the education sector has not been translated into cost-effective spending, and sometimes, a large part of the annual development budget remains unspent, say experts and academics.

The existing institutional structure needs enhanced capacity to utilise more and more resources to develop the sector,’ points out professor Anisuzzaman, University of Dhaka. ‘Not only is there a dire need for capacity building but also proper and effective planning in the overall sector.’

‘Improving the standard of teaching is crucial. Teachers are poorly trained and paid. Teaching methods and materials are generally sub-standard, especially in government schools. Schools are in poor condition and detrimental to learning. Moreover, the entire system and structure needs to be provided,’ points out Miah.

Primary education has evolved through various challenges and taken decades to shape. Around 1973, after independence, primary schools were nationalised as part of a larger policy framework. These nationalised primary schools began to cater a major portion of primary population. Subsequently, teachers and headmasters became employees of the central government with their ties and their accountability to the local communities that they serve almost severed.

Presently, these schools are directly run by the government which pays 100 per cent of staff costs and grants for school infrastructure and free textbooks for all their students. Along with this financial assistance, the responsibility over the year, has been extended to non-government organizations too. ‘But, these private organizations, extended only support to some of the larger activities by the government,’ says Siddiqur Rahman, professor, Institute of Education and Research, University of Dhaka, and heading the Primary Education Development Program(PEDP).

PEDP II represents a major operational part of the government’s Education for All (EFA) and poverty reduction agenda, which are linked with the Millennium Development Goals. ‘We have been looking over the overall primary education program and planning to ensure better development and training programs are served for the teachers. We are constantly working to better the services,’ adds Rahman.

‘While we do recognise the many improvements within the primary system lack of proper monitoring and transparency in the operation of the system has been a major issue of concern,’ adds Salma Akhter. ‘Moreover, even though you have greater enrolment, at the same time the drop out rate has been increased to 47%- almost half the group, which is alarming.’

Inclusion of BRAC

On May 23, this year, the government approved the pilot primary education project under which BRAC would work to improve overall education and classroom environment in the 20 upazilas by training teachers and making school management committees (SMC) more effective.

According to primary teachers, experts and academics, this move comes as a shock and a major shift in the policies so far. According to them, this move would not improve the standard of primary education; rather shift primary education control to private sector control.

‘I feel this step has not been a good idea,’ says Zafar Iqbal. ‘BRAC is covering a major portion and that is undesirable, specifically because, they have no experience in delivering formal primary education as such. Moreover, the whole process of getting BRAC involved and their role has been highly non-transparent and confusing.’

‘The pilot programme of Brac will assist the government’s second phase of Prmary Education Development Programme (PEDP). Monitoring of the government programme on primary education has not been given to Brac or any other NGO,’ said Khondaker M Asaduzzaman, director general of directorate of primary education in response to this past week’s outrage by the primary school groups.

‘We know from the notices and documents, that this is the first time that a private body is working along side government, instead of providing support,’ says Zafar Iqbal. ‘This goes against the principle of keeping the primary education out of private hands.’

‘It could be presented differently with more strategic thinking and preparatory groundwork involving key stakeholders. NGOs (not just BRAC) working with primary education could be supported by PEDP to fill in the educational/school gaps (through establishing schools in remote areas, promotion of pre-primary centers, inclusive education for ethnic minorities, disabled, street/working children and similar others and inclusion of life/ occupational skills) as appropriate,’ suggests Anish Borua, an expert who has worked extensively with BRAC education program in the 80s and later at the Dhaka-based ngo CAMPE.

Brac has no intention of privatising or commercialising primary schools in the country and its pilot project, funded solely by Brac, said Brac chairperson Fazle Hasan Abed told reporters last week.

‘Since Brac is funding the pilot project, it will not use public funds allotted for Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP-II) of the government. We have no plan to take any fund of the PEDP-II or any fund from foreign donor agencies,’ added Abed.

‘There are 500 Upazilas in the country, so the 20 that BRAC is in charge of is insignificant,’ says Rahman. When asked about BRAC’s role, the PEDP officials refused to speak about the issue.

According to primary and mass education adviser, Rasheda K Choudhury, ‘We need supports from all stakeholders including NGOs for improving the quality of education in primary level. With this end in view we gave an NGO the responsibility of monitoring all the primary schools in twenty Upazilas across the country. It is an experimental programme, not a permanent one.’ She further said that the education ministry and directorate of Primary Education will monitor the pilot project and make a report after completion of mid-term and final supervision evaluating the performance of the NGO. ‘The ministry will cancel the pilot project if the NGO fails to reach the target.’

Be it experimental or a long term process, the steps that have been taken recently needed to be discussed in a more accountable way and it is evident that the process was not a transparent one or clear to the major experts, academics, primary school organizations and associations, let alone the general public- who are, lest all the other actors forget, the masters of the state. Therefore, primary education system being as crucial as it is to any country across the world needs to stand on a stronger platform and steps need to be taken to clarify the confusions.

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The people’s war

May 1, 2008

Tahmina Shafique writes about the exhibition in London that records and retells the birth of Bangladesh and the images that bring to life the resilence and melancholy of people during 1971

Those who have lived through the war of independence in 1971, speak of it with tears of pride and inexplicable melancholy. Often, they struggle to fight back tears and find words that would perhaps justify the depths of the movement- the depth of the extraordinary power, resilence and belief of the people.

   More often than not, they say, words fail to do justice- to the desperation, to the strength, to the struggles, the desperate cries, the haunting memories, the images, the bloodsheds and more.

   True, words fail to justify even the bloodiest war of the twentieth century. And more often, words seem to die and with that a part of history seems to fade. So has the history of 1971 in so many ways. Even though the war stands till date as the worst genocide of World War II era – the number of deaths being well into seven figures, outstripping Rwanda (800,000 killed) and probably surpassing even Indonesia (1 million to 1.5 million killed in 1965-66), it remains to be a largely unacknowledged event in the history of the world.

   The larger part of the world population seem to have very little knowledge and awareness concerning the campaign of violence on the part of the Pakistani army as the Bengali people of the then East Pakistan sought to achieve political sovereignty.

   Thirty seven years on, the war remains to be a contested issue- those who had seen the war continue to fight to pass on the true stories to the next generation and at the same time fight between emotional and psychological intensity that the war left within them.

   In the past 37 years, so much has been written, so much told, yet it is felt that none of it could bring to the life the true images of the war, none of it could justify what this people’s war meant.

   Yet, amidst these, photographs speak the tale of the war that time may have forgotten. It is also true that war photographs remain to be powerful in history- because of the intensity – both emotional and physical that it portrays, but also perhaps the photographs of 1971 stand out for several other reasons. More than anything else, the photographers seem to stand out for the one fact that it was the people’s war- not the armies- but people- farmers, villagers, man, woman and child.

   This month as an exhibition titled ‘Bangladesh 1971’ takes place at the Rivington Place public gallery in Shoreditch, East London, they retell the tale of the war visually, bringing back painful memories to Bangladeshis and leaving others in awe. These photographs of the war taken in 1971 bring to life the very images of the beginning of a dream- the movement of people and the birth of Bangladesh.

   In this exhibition, most were amateur photographers at that time, men who just happened to hold a camera when they found themselves caught up in the war. For almost two decades, Shahidul Alam – director of the Drik, the photography Library in Dhaka and a curator of the current exhibition along with Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph ABP – went beyond the struggle to justify the war with words and collected these photos, visiting the photographers in their homes and saving their negatives.

   These images taken by these accidental archivists, 37 years later have gone on to become an intimate, reflexive portrait of the war, ranging from photographs that are well known to others that have never been seen in public.

   The exhibition consists of more than 100 images organised in loose chronology that begins with the first resistance of the Bengalis, to the Pakistani occupation. The exhibition portrays some powerful images. The spirit and resilience of 1969-70, when war was imminent is captured most powerfully by Rashid Talukdar’s image of a ten-year-old bare feet boy, leading a street march and shouting ecstatically and leading the group.

   The collection includes many iconic images of war: Abdul Hamid Raihan’s image of two children staring into the distance, a carpet of missiles scattered at their feet; Mohammed Shafi’s portrait of a freedom fighter – a boy who could be from anywhere – reveals a young man’s fear despite his attempt at studied resolve. Other images depict the horror and the haunting night mares that many speak of till date.

   On the night of December 14, knowing they were about to lose the war, the Pakistani army and its local paramilitary allies massacred the future doctors, teachers, lawyers, and writers of Bangladesh in an effort to cripple the new nation. The bodies were not found until after independence, when a mass grave was discovered in the city. The exhibition includes a powerful image of this massacre- a ghostlike face surrounded by submerged bricks and covered in a thin sheen of mud.

   Bangladesh 1971 also showcases the many portraits of the slaughter. A photograph shows a uniformed man circled by a large crowd, stabbing a civilian with a bayonet; the caption tells us that it is not a Pakistani soldier but a Bengali one, attacking a local man who has collaborated with the army, is outstanding. According to reports, at Alam’s first exhibition of war photos in Bangladesh, the government had requested that he removed this image, in which the roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. His refusal led to the exhibition being shown at a private gallery rather than at the National Museum.

   It is here that Alam is most successful in bringing the untold tales of the war and the complexities of the many roles played. The exhibition in all, documents the political story, the landslide election victory of Sheikh Mujib, the betrayals by collaborators, the massacre of intellectuals two days before the surrender of the Pakistani forces – and at the same time it reveals other stories- some untold, some silent.

   Walking out in the newly liberated town of Mymensingh, the photographer Naib Uddin Ahmed had come across woman who had been raped and tortured by the Pakistani army: his picture of a woman covering her face with her hair bears witness to the contradictory state policy regarding such women and the powerful image seems to speak louder than words.

   Another powerful image that showcases women’s struggle and their actions in the war is the image of women preparing for battle prior to the crackdown of March 25, 1971. The exhibition includes many more photographs- idyllic image of two women wading through a pond with a basket of flowers, carrying grenades covered with water hyacinth- show the strong role played by women. The countless images, a visual testament to the trauma and hope of independence.

   Some of the photographers were also of actual freedom fighters, like Mohammad Shafi, whose diaries, buried underground and recovered after the war, are the only non-photographic artefacts on display. Alam characterises these Bangladeshi photographers as freedom fighters for the huge personal risks they took to preserve the only ‘physical documentation of this war’.

   As Bangladesh 1971, a visual journey into the birth of Bangladesh brings to life the memories to many and awes the rest, thousands of miles away from home, in many ways at an important political time such as this, important questions once again appear and linger on- have we as a nation paid respect to those who fought for independence? Are we still fighting another fight?