Breaking the Cycle UK: making secondary education possible for girls in Bangladesh

Breaking the Cycle UK: making secondary education possible for girls in Bangladesh

Breaking the Cycle UK is a not-for-profit organisation founded in 2011 by Siddika Ahmed to support the continued education of secondary school girls from financially disadvantaged families in Greater Sylhet, Bangladesh. This interview is part of a two-article series aimed at presenting and showcasing one of the projects that Time For Equality has chosen to support in the frame of our ‘Take Action‘ mission. The first article, introducing Siddika Ahmed, can be read here.

In line with the Millennium Development Goal 3 to “promote gender equality and empower women“, Breaking the Cycle UK aims to give young girls from disadvantaged families and geographical areas in Bangladesh a better chance in life through better access to information and education. The form of support provided includes meeting the financial costs for school fees, exam fees, uniforms, books, tiffin and travel costs.

Siddika Ahmed, founder of this initiative, points out on the organisation’s website that ”daughters in Bangladesh are not generally given priority over sons in families, particularly where money is tight, thus, families, including the girls themselves, sacrifice their education to facilitate the sons.”

Siddika Ahmed on a trip to Bangladesh Photo Credits: Siddika Ahmed

Siddika and one of the beneficiary girls
Photo: Siddika Ahmed

By addressing this type of inequality in Sylhet, Breaking the Cycle UK promotes the long-term advantages that come from improving opportunities for girls. ”Practical support for girls of secondary education age to access higher level education and the value of increased literacy and educational attainment will be demonstrated through their ability to help their families access and put into practice advice on healthy living and civic rights, as well as improving their chances for gaining meaningful employment.”

The beneficiaries are girls who are academically bright in secondary education and thanks to this support programme, some 35 girls have already been given the opportunity to advance their studies and be better prepared for their life ahead.

The cost to change the future of each girl is £10 per month or £120 per annum and donations can be made via the Breaking the Cycle UK website here.

Time for Equality talked to Siddika Ahmed about Breaking the Cycle UK and girls’ access to education in an interview conducted in May 2014.

‘Breaking the Cycle’’ supports girls of secondary school age, from financially deprived backgrounds in the Greater Sylhet District of Bangladesh. Why did you choose this particular area in Bangladesh?

”My family heritage is Bangladeshi. I was born in Sylhet and did not come to live in the UK until I was 4 years old. Also I discovered through my research that a lot of the funds from International Aid did not reach the Greater Sylhet District but the “lions share” of funds was spent in the Dhaka region.

I felt that both these factors were important in choosing location as well as the identified need for support for girls who are not able to continue education due to poverty.”

How can a UK-based not-for-profit organisation promote social change and particularly help local communities of young girls in Bangladesh? What has ‘‘Breaking the Cycle’’ achieved so far?

”Social change is created through empowerment of those who feel they have no power or “voice”. Access to and completion of education is a key starting point to meet these needs. I believe that our girls will help others and their children will have better opportunities. Just as a small stone can create a ripple effect that spreads across a pool, Breaking the Cycle UK can do the same through the progress of our girls.

So far, we have 35 girls on our programme of support with 40 more places that will be filled by the end of this year. I feel we have started the “ripple effect”.” 

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What was the initial reaction to this project from the locals’ point of view?

”My initial fear that there would be a negative reaction to my aims with Breaking the Cycle was unfounded.

The fact that I was born in Sylhet, the region of Bangladesh in which Breaking the Cycle UK is working, was a good start to our conversation and furthermore, I can speak the local dialect of Bangla which was a great “crowd pleaser”.

I had begun with a great strategic presentation written in English about the value of education and how it can improve the future prospects of girls –particularly- if they are currently living in economic disadvantage. However, when I asked the audience whether they were happy with English or preferred me to speak in Bangla about the background, aims and objectives of Breaking the Cycle UK, they asked for me to deliver my presentation in Bangla. Once I started speaking Sylheti, the smiles just spread throughout the room and they welcomed the “returning daughter of Sylhet” with a positive and supportive response.

The audience made up of families, head teachers, local officials and local media as well as children were all keen to ensure that my aims were achieved and offered to help in any way that their personal capacity would allow.”

Girls’ education has been a very topical issue in the last few years. Global public opinion has thoroughly discussed the case of Malala and also debated on the more recent abduction of some 200 girls from a boarding school in North Eastern Nigeria. How can western audiences properly understand the multiple barriers that such girls experience when trying to pursue education?

”I feel it is difficult for Western audiences to truly understand the multiple barriers that such girls like Malala experience. The gender issue is one that is difficult to overcome in society as a whole on a global scale….even in the UK we do not have complete gender parity in practice even though it is legislated. It is tough to grasp the issue of cultural and faith barriers in developing countries objectively without being discriminatory or being seen as patronising.

Awareness of the issues faced, by girls in particular, is increasing due to global coverage by the media, the use of social media as a way to publicise global issues. The ability of people to travel more extensively due to budget airlines to areas in the world where the masses would not have ventured in the past also contributes to a greater understanding of the difficulties faced by women/girls worldwide.

The United Nations Millennium Goal 3 and people embracing the value of education for girls as a key indicator in economic development is really helping to create opportunities and inspire change in developing countries.”

BTCUK founder Siddika Ahmed and Time for Equality founder Rosa Brignone exchanging views in Birmingham, UK, July 2014

BTCUK founder Siddika Ahmed and Time for Equality founder Rosa Brignone exchanging views in Birmingham, UK, July 2014

What else should be done to make sure that girls receive the education they are entitled to, especially in disadvantaged and less developed areas?

”Changing attitudes of communities, influencing faith communities to understand the power and freedom and demonstrating the economic advantages of education.

International economic pressure and market forces affecting trade with developing countries and civil campaigns can create change.

Men need to be recruited within the equality campaigns to create an attitude change in patriarchal societies.

Role models of successful females in a variety of professional, political and social careers will help to engage people who are cynical about empowering women and dispel myths of education detracting from their faith and culture.”

Are western funding and lobbying enough to break the cycle for girls born in countries with strong patriarchal traditions?

”I imagine that western funding and lobbying are not enough to break the cycle for girls inequality, however, the support provided by Breaking the Cycle UK is not seen as western intervention by the Bangladeshi people with whom I been in contact because it is led by someone who was originally from this region .

They are happy that a British Bangladeshi is at the forefront of this programme of support. We are very careful to consider cultural sensitivities and understand the economic reasons behind girls in Bangladesh having a lower priority in families who are financially disadvantaged.

35 girls have already been given the chance to advance their studies

35 girls already had the chance to advance their studies thanks to Breaking the Cycle UK Photo Credits: Siddika Ahmed/ BTCUK

In a State where welfare support is not available for people if they are poor or the elderly, families rely on sons to be able to generate an income and maintain parents when they are unable to provide for the family themselves. They are positive about the opportunities that Breaking the Cycle UK is giving their daughters for a more secure future because they cannot provide this themselves.

It is not a given, that everyone feels the same way in Bangladesh and I am sure some people have different views to the parents and officials with whom I have had contact.

In some countries where patriarchal and conservative traditions are at the forefront of society, problems can arise and it is really the people within these societies who have to take a stand to create change and governments have to consider a shift change in attitude even if it is about economics. The fact that countries where there is an increase in the percentage of economically active women show an increase in GDP is well documented by economists.”


What are your hopes and goals for ‘‘Breaking the Cycle’’ in the future?

 ”I hope that the girls we are supporting now will go onto further education and feel empowered to make their own choices for the future they want.

I would also like to have a peer support group made up of Breaking the Cycle UK “alumni” who sign up to helping other girls in Bangladesh.

In the next phase of development, I would like international companies based in Bangladesh to provide job opportunities and apprenticeships for both our girls and for boys who are from families who cannot facilitate those opportunities.”

Women face gender-based barriers all over the world: if in some countries they may have limited access to education, in others, despite pursuing higher education, many women still find it hard to gain the same recognition as their male counterparts. Is gender equality then a feasible concept? Can women hope to achieve it in the nearest future?

”Gender equality is definitely a feasible concept. It is not so long ago that women were not in professions such as engineering or leaders on the political landscape. Now we have women in all professions, even though progress can be limited in some cases. As more men support the rights of women and gender roles are shared between the sexes, I believe there will be a “tipping point” and we will progress. As women, we need to have the confidence and belief in our own abilities. We also need to support each other to make progress rather than allowing a masculine need compete against each other to take hold. As mothers of future generations of children we need to take responsibility for treating our daughters and sons equally. Nothing is impossible, if we truly believe we can create change!

In the words of Theodore Roosevelt: ”If we believe we can, we are halfway there”.

Interview conducted for Time for Equality by Roxana Mironescu.

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