Innovation Spotlight Series – Spotlight 3: Incentivising Arabic to Engage Female Adult Learners: A Case Study of Dhaka’s Neemtoli Slum

by Dr. Mariha Tahsin and Dr. Shoshannah Kate Williams | on 15 November 2022


One example is the Ready-Made Garments (RMG) sector, which is the leading export industry of Bangladesh. It is estimated that pre-pandemic, the industry employed approximately 4.22 million people (Haque & Bari, 2021). Eighty percent of these employees were female and generated a critical portion of household income (Banks, 2016; ILO 2020). In 2020, the Bangladeshi RMG sector suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Brands/buyers cancelled and deferred orders and delayed payment. As a result, garments and textile factories across the country reduced or shut down operations. Almost 23 percent of member factories of the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association) closed their operations. Some of these closed factories reopened their operations, but in most cases, on a smaller scale. An estimated 2.1 million garments workers lost their jobs due to the closures and downsizing (USAID, 2021).


According to Ahmed 2022, garment workers who became unemployed during the pandemic, found it difficult to be reinstated into their previous jobs.  Post-pandemic, RMG factories have displayed a tendency to recruit educated workers, even for entry-level jobs. These requirements were previously absent. Literacy is screened by recruiting personnel, with some incorporating basic English and Bengali literacy tests into the hiring process. Workers who lacked basic literacy reported being unable to get jobs, regardless of their professional skill level or experience (Ahmed, 2022).


Learnings from the SUDIN program indicates similar situations in other industries in Bangladesh. The need for adult literacy to support integration into the formal employment market was extrapolated from these findings. A needs assessment by the SUDIN program was conducted at Neemtoli, an urban slum in Dhaka. However, the FGD found that none of the illiterate[i] female adults were interested in engaging with an adult literacy intervention. While none of the female respondents were interested in learning English, Bengali or Math skills, they were interested in learning Arabic. Respondents cited several reasons for this.  Participants repeatedly discussed having resigned themselves ‘to their fate’ and did not believe that effort to improve their life would ‘bear fruit’. They also had little confidence in their ability to learn. On the other hand, participants were enthusiastic to learn to read Arabic, despite not understanding the language. The desire was reported to stem from the Islamic belief that regular recitation of the Arabic Quran will earn the individual rewards in the afterlife. These findings align with previous research that shows that religious and social needs can supersede basic economic needs, even in ultra-poor urban communities (Williams, 2018).


The enthusiasm to learn Arabic may also be reflective of the popularity of Madrasha[ii] based education in Bangladesh. In 2021, more than 15 percent of students enrolled in secondary education in Bangladesh were in the Madrasha system, for girls the proportion stood at 16 percent (Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics, 2021). In contrast, the Madrasha sector accounted for less than 1 percent of overall enrolment in Pakistan, another Muslim majority South-Asian country (Andrabi et al., 2006).

Analysis of data from Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 2018 provides additional insight into the household dynamics that contribute to education decision making. Students enrolled in Madrashas’s tend to belong to the poorest households.. The average per capita per day consumption expenditure of households with students enrolled in Madrashasii. The only category of education providers that serve students from even poorer households are NGO-run literacy courses. These findings indicate that household income plays a part in educational decision-making, a theory that  is further corroborated by the fact that income status of students and average annual educational expenditure follow the same order. Hence, households with the highest per capita incomes exhibit a tendency to avail the services of the most expensive education providers. On average, Madrasha’s cost 15.8 percent less than formal schools, annually. When compared to government informal literacy programs, Madrasha’s are still 11.6 percent cheaper. It can be concluded that lower education expenses are a key factor in a poorer households’ decision to educate their children in Madrasha’s.

Outlooks towards the Madrasha education system vary across Bangladesh. In-depth interviews of patrons revealed that there is continued support within the Islamic community to fund Madrashas; as it is viewed as the best means of promoting Islamic values. However, there are also loud and frequent calls to ‘modernize’ the Madrasha system, referring to prevalent perception that Madrasha teachers are poorly trained and students graduate with limited skills and limited employability (The Daily Star Report, 2018). These assumptions have resulted in the structural discrimination against Madrasha students, who are reported to be passed over for employment (Rahman, 2015). Surprisingly, data from Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, (2018) shows that despite being cheaper than government informal literacy programs, the proportion of students lacking reading and/or writing skills is less than half for Madrasha students.  On the other hand, students of formal schools, which are almost 16 percent more expensive than Madrashas, performed only 2 percentage points better than Madrasha students. Interestingly, educational outcomes of NGO literacy courses are also significantly poorer than those of Madrashas. Madrasha students are developing literacy skills on par with those of formal schools at a reduced cost. This finding contradicts the widely held belief that Madrasha education is vastly inferior to secular education, at least with respect to the development of basic literacy skills.


Interestingly, whilst the popularity of enrollment of children in Madrasha’s is at least partly due to lower expenditure, the adult women living in Neemtoli slum were disinterested in literacy programs, even when the classes were offered at no cost. This shows that in this group of potential students (adult women), religious and societal beliefs override other considerations with respect to consumption of educational products. Based on these findings, the SUDIN program is designing an adult literacy program that tags weekly Arabic lessons along with other literacy skills. Only learners who regularly attend the English, Bengali and Math lessons would be eligible to attend the Arabic lessons. Thus, by incentivising Arabic, the program aims to engage previously reticent female adult learners to learn basic literacy skills and thus improve their employability.


The addition of Arabic lessons for adult literacy is an unconventional approach for a secular NGO. There is considerable debate between secular and faith-based NGO’s in Bangladesh as to the role and approach of NGO’s within education and women’s empowerment interventions (Rahman and Rahman, 2019)iii. However, given the potential to engage reticent learners and deliver educational services in a more cost-effective manner, there may be scope for policy makers and practitioners to capitalise on the existing Madrasha and faith-based education models. It may be inferred that the model can be replicated across regions with similar socio-cultural dynamics.


Biographical Notes


Dr. Mariha Tahsin has over nine years of experience working as a development practitioner, researcher and academician in the UK and Bangladesh.  Her expertise lies in evidence-based design of rural and urban poverty alleviation programs. She is currently the Head of Research and Product Development of SAJIDA Foundation’s SUDIN program.


Dr. Shoshannah K. Williams is an occupational therapist, urban development practitioner and social scientist. Her work explores the intersection of client-centred approaches and urban poverty programming. She is the Head of the SUDIN Program at SAJIDA Foundation.




i)Acknowledgements: The authors would like to extend their thanks to Ms. Zakia Haque, Senior Coordinator-Education, SUDIN program. Her work was critical in disentangling the unique dynamics of engaging female adult learners.

ii) The acronym SUDIN, is a Bengali word, meaning ‘better days’. Link to SUDIN’s website:

iii) Individuals with none or limited skills in reading or/and writing Bengali or English

iv) Madrashas are faith-based educational institutions that teach and promote Islamic principles and scholarship. Since the original teachings of Islam were published in Arabic, the language is heavily incorporated into the curriculum. Thus, Arabic is often viewed as a means of accruing cultural capital.



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