How Digital Bangladesh can fulfill dreams


 

Date Publish: 
Friday, May 3, 2019

Sabrina Afrin Riza is 15 years old. She graduated from SSC at the Moheshkhali Government Girls’ High School, dreaming of a career in medicine. But her father and his small wood business could not afford to pay for her dreams. 

Sabrina’s mother was supportive but, as a housewife, all she could offer was emotional support, not financial. That’s when Sabrina knew the only way she could realize her dreams was by working and saving up the money to attend medical school.

On an island as small and quaint as hers, however, it was a plan easier made than put into action. 

But when Sabrina heard of the new IT centre opening up on the island, she knew this was the key she had been waiting for, to unlocking the door to her new future. 

She was quick to enrol, and is now well on her path to computer literacy. 

The computer literacy course is offered at a rather affordable Tk2,000. Sabrina says she likes her teachers, and the atmosphere in the class makes her feel like she is studying in a big city like Dhaka or Chittagong. 

There are about 20 students in every batch, many of whom are young women like her. The course also offers to help students connect with potential jobs if they perform well in the final assessments. 

Discovering how much information is now available to her at just a click of a button has been an especially enthralling experience for this small-island girl. 

Money has always been a challenge for Sabrina’s family, just like most of the families on the island. At times, they had to ask their relatives for loans in order pay her school fees and other such expenses. Her brother completed a Master’s degree, but has remained jobless, a fate shared by many other people who live on this small island with practically non-existent job opportunities. 

Sabrina wouldn’t mind migrating to the mainland for better job prospects, but is afraid that her family may not allow her to do so. 

Perhaps after she completes the course with flying colours and finds a job, she can propose the move to them in a safe, planned, and proper way. 

Department of Social Services Assistant Director Imran Khan says: “Our youth are bright and eager to work. If we give them the skills with which to contribute, they will do a lot for our country.” 

Moheshkhali is a remote island, off the coast of Cox’s Bazaar. The island has lower than average levels of basic services such as education (both primary and secondary), health care, and access to information and job markets. 

The average literacy rate amongst the population is 30%, well below the national average of around 50% (urban 50.5% and rural 43.1%). 

The island is extremely vulnerable to climate change, standing only a few meters above an ever-rising sea level, and located within a notorious cyclone corridor. Over the past three decades, approximately 0.63sq-km of the island’s coastal land has been submerged, destroying viable agricultural land. 

The island has a total population of over 300,000 with a population density of about 900 people per square kilometre.

While Moheshkhali has facilities for schools and health clinics, they have been chronically under-staffed.  A needs assessment conducted by IOM -- the UN Migration Agency -- in 2016 showed that the teachers on the island have a limited capacity to teach anything outside of the basic curriculum and are particularly weak in teaching English.

Most of the allocated government health care positions remain vacant as recruiting staff for a remote island is a constant challenge. The number of physicians is 11 per 20,000 people. 

Due to the health complex’s limited capacity and the absence of female doctors, women in Moheshkhali have trouble accessing maternal and reproductive health care services, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Health Bulletin 2015.

Moreover, in emergency cases, accessing life-saving services in Cox’s Bazar town can take up to five hours by car or boat depending on weather and road conditions, making it a potentially fatal journey for many.

Irregular migration is a major concern on the island, particularly the trafficking and smuggling of people to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand by the oft-used Andaman Sea route.

People are generally unaware of the processes of safe migration and the dangers of irregular migration. Greater awareness and sensitization of the community is a desperate need of the hour, to prevent human trafficking. 

Digital Island Moheskhali is a project being implemented by IOM, and the ICT Ministry of the government of Bangladesh to improve the quality of public services through digital means. The project --funded by the Korea International Cooperation Agency and Korea Telecom -- has provided internet connections for 25 government institutions, digitized 10 primary schools, and five government health institutions with innovative interventions, thereby creating an IT space where students can learn about computers. 

The project aims to open an online platform to connect marginalized producers on the island to customers around the country, allowing the community to sell their products without the intervention of a middleman. 

In order to sensitize the community about trafficking and smuggling issues, the project plans to implement community awareness activities utilizing the newly established IT space. 

This project is an example of Digital Bangladesh at its best, using technology to create innovative solutions that revolutionizes the way people on this tiny little island live and work. 

The innovations of Digital Island Moheshkhali need to be scaled up and replicated throughout rural Bangladesh so that never again does any Sabrina have to forego her dreams of a better future. 

 

Sukhee Chae is a Project Officer at IOM based in Cox’s Bazar who is leading the Digital Island Moheshkhali project. She may be reached at schae@iom.int. Radhika Tabrez is an editor at IOM Dhaka. Shazia Omar is an activist and a writer. www.shaziaomar.com.

The Op-Ed was first published on Dhaka Tribune, Date: 3rd May, 2019