Ethnic minority children in Bangladesh from the southeast Chittagong Hill Tracts are among the country's least literate and at heightened risk of dropping out of school, say experts and community leaders.
Children in this region bordering India and Myanmar face discrimination in government-run schools where they are often badly treated by teachers and students from the country's largest ethnic group, Bengalis, said Saikat Biswas, a programme officer with Oxfam GB.
The mostly Buddhist population of 1.3 million ethnic minorities - about 1 percent of the country's predominantly Muslim population - are concentrated in the districts of Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachari, also known as Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).
Dozens of minority groups here lag behind the rest of the country in land ownership, income, employment, health and, significantly, literacy.
"The rate of literacy is far lower among the ethnic minorities than it is nationally," said Rezai Karim Khondker, an economics professor at Bangladesh's Shahjalal University of Science and Technology.
More than half of all household members surveyed in CHT (55.2 percent) have no formal schooling, according to a recent study by Khondker and others.
And for those who start schooling, fewer than 8 percent complete primary education while 2 percent complete secondary education, according to a 2009 study by the Dhaka-based research group, Human Development Research Centre.
Nationwide, estimates of the percentage of children who finished their primary education from 2005-2009 varied from 55 to 94 percent, based on various UN surveys.
Children from four to six years old soon lose interest in the classroom and drop out when they cannot communicate with teachers or understand lessons, said Biswas.
"Ethnic minority children communicate in their mother tongue in their house. But, in school, they are compelled to face Bengali text while the teachers are also from the Bengali community. The whole teaching method is in Bangla."
Mongching Marma, 7, enrolled in Shishu primary school in Khagrachari District, but left within two years. "In school, we have to read in Bangla language. I struggled a lot to understand the Bangla text," he said.
Many of his friends also left before finishing primary school for the same reason, he added.
"Children get a totally different environment in school when teachers are of another community and the text is in a different language," said Sanjeeb Drong, general-secretary of the CHT-based ethnic minority rights coalition, Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum. Most of the country's 45 ethnic minority groups live in CHT.
"It is totally impossible to increase literacy rates among the ethnic minority groups if the government cannot introduce primary education in their mother tongue," he added.
Teachers should also come from ethnic minority communities so pupils have a similar environment in school as they do at home, said Drong.
Bangladesh's 2010 National Education Policy recommended introducing primary education for ethnic minority groups in their own languages, but Drong said he had seen little progress and no "effective steps" toward implementing the initiative.
The government has formed committees to carry out the education policy, said the chairman of the parliamentary standing committee at the Education Ministry, Rashed Khan Menon, but expanding the languages of instruction is a big undertaking and requires "huge funding".
Meanwhile, the government continues to take different steps to improve ethnic minorities' access to education and literacy, including opening new schools in CHT and setting quotas for ethnic minority student university placements and employment, he added.
But even with little funding, governments can train non-ethnic minority teachers to support ethnic minority students who do not speak the dominant language, said Fred Genesee, a psychology professor at McGill University in Canada, who has researched language among minority children in the Americas.
"The tendency is to think there is nothing special that needs to be done with second language learners. This is a huge mistake... A century of research shows that education in the dominant language does not work for many children. These children underperform and drop out at higher rates."
A shortage of schools in rural areas is another hurdle to boosting literacy, said Biswas and Drong.
Poverty is also a factor, said the economics professor, Khondker. "When they have nothing to eat, parents prefer to employ their children in any work rather than sending them to school."
Six out of 10 households in CHT - irrespective of ethnicity - live below the national absolute poverty line where each member consumes less than 2,100 calories per day; the other four households live in extreme poverty (less than 1,800 calories per day), according to a 2009 UN-funded study.
First published in IRIN, humanitarian news and analysis, 4 November 2011