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Rezwan’s story

“We’ve always had flooding here in Bangladesh, but it’s much worse now. Thousands of schools are destroyed by flooding every year, says Mohammed Rezwan, who fights for the right of all children to go to school in a country plagued by natural disasters.

The heavy rains came every year during the monsoon season in the village of Shidhulai when Rezwan was growing up. Everything was flooded. Fields, homes and roads.

Bangladesh is one of the countries most severely affected by climate change. Children suffer most of all. Almost 20 million children in Bangladesh are affected by the consequences of extreme heat, drought, cyclones and flooding.

Houses made of mud, straw and bamboo were dragged along by the floodwater, and people lost everything they owned. Many died. Schools were destroyed and closed. And because the roads were left deep under water, you couldn’t walk or cycle to those schools that remained open. Many children were left without any kind of education.
“That’s what it was like for many of my friends, but it was a bit different for me.”

Rezwan’s dad worked in the capital Dhaka, so the rest of the family lived with grandma and grandfather in the village. Grandfather was a secondary school teacher who owned his own land and grew crops, and the house was sturdy and built of brick with a tin roof.

“We also had a boat that we used to transport our rice and other crops we grew. So when the roads flooded, I could get to school by boat. I was lucky, but it didn’t feel good because many of my friends didn’t have the same opportunity.”


School was really important to Rezwan’s grandfather, who encouraged him to study hard.

“I loved school, I got good grades and scholarships, which meant I could afford to continue on to university in the capital Dhaka, where I trained to be an architect.”

Every time Rezwan visited Shidhulai he met friends of his who had been forced to quit school because of the constant flooding. He saw how hard life was for them. There were no jobs, no health care and the situation for schools was still bad in the area. Everything was just a huge struggle for survival.

“It felt unfair, and I wanted to help in some way. As an architect, I wanted to build schools, libraries and hospitals and help create jobs in the villages so life would be better,” explains Rezwan.

​​Rezwan is in regular contact with his schools out on the rivers. Do they have everything they need? Enough teachers? Skippers? Books?

Floating schools

But he realised that it was no use building normal schools, because they’d only be destroyed in the next flood.

“At its worst, two-thirds of Bangladesh ended up under water, so I came to the conclusion that the schools had to be able to float so as not to be destroyed. And if the schools were built as boats, then school could come to the children when they couldn’t make their own way to school because the roads were under water.”

In 1998, using an old computer and $500 that Rezwan had left over from a scholarship, he started the organization Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha (Shidhulai self-reliant organization) to make his vision of floating schools a reality.

First boat school

“I sat up late at night searching for organizations in Bangladesh and abroad that could support me financially. I sent hundreds of emails! Meanwhile, I worked with a team of volunteers collecting scrap for recycling, which we sold to factories to raise money.
In the end, all our efforts produced results. The money started coming in.” Rezwan took on two employees, and in 2002 he was able to design and build the first boat school.

“We used materials and skilled boat builders from the villages. People were proud!”

​​Each boat school takes three classes with 30 students every day. The classes are taught in three-hour sessions.

In addition to the boat builders getting work and the children an education, Rezwan also employed both teachers and skippers from the village.

“It became everyone’s school, not just mine!” says Rezwan, laughing.

Girls’ rights

Rezwan managed to raise more money, so the number of boat schools and students increased every year. And to enable as many children as possible to go to school, the education was completely free, including the school books. Children that would previously never have gone to school were now jumping aboard one of Rezwan’s schools when they arrived at their village.

“Every child has the right to go to school. But here it’s perhaps most important of all for the girls. One in five girls is married off by the age of 15. The best way to stop child marriage is to make sure these girls get to go to school for as long as possible,” explains Rezwan.

“If a girl is the victim of a sexual assault, it’s often the girl thatgets the blame in the end. The family’s honour has been ruined, and gossip means that no-one wants to marry either the girl or her sisters. One of the reasons for child marriage is to avoid the family’s honour being at risk. It’s a dreadful situation,” says Rezwan.

“My mother was married at the age of 13. She had me at 15. She gave up her own childhood, her own rights, to look after me and my brothers. So the fight for equal rights for girls and boys is something that is very personal to me! We’ve always spent a lot of time explaining to everyone in the villages that girls and boys share the same rights, and that both must be respected and allowed to go to school.”

Rezwan’s 26 schools

Today, 20 years after the first school was launched, 2,340 students attend 26 school boats on the rivers of northwest Bangladesh. And in addition to the floating schools, Rezwan’s organization also has floating libraries and health clinics that reach 150,000 villagers every year. Over 22,000 children have been educated on the boat schools, and Rezwan’s floating schools idea has spread to other organizations across Bangladesh. It’s also spread to India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria and Zambia.

“I’m delighted! And if you consider the effects of global warming, even more floating schools are going to be needed around the world,” says Rezwan.

Dangerous work

But not everyone is a fan of Rezwan’s work.
   “There are those who don’t like the idea of poor children getting a good education, because it means that as adults they’ll start demanding their rights. Then it won’t be possible anymore to exploit them as cheap labour and steal their money. So my colleagues and I have many enemies. We are reported to the police on false grounds, and our offices and homes get searched. I’ve been the victim of two murder attempts and I rarely sleep more than one night in the same place.”

“I don’t own many things or have much money. But every time I see all the children at the boat schools learning important things, which will allow them to fulfil their dreams and have a good life, I feel lucky and rich!”

Long queue for the doctor on one of the organization’s six floating health clinics.

Safe for the girls

“In Bangladesh, girls can be the victims of assault by male teachers, or on their way to and from school. It means that many families decide not to let their daughters go to school. We do every­thing we can to make sure families feel safe. Almost all our teachers are women, who are popular and live in the village where they teach. The boats pick up and drop off the students where they live, and are piloted by skippers who also come from the village,” explains Rezwan.

Rezwan’s 54 boats

  • 26 schools
  • 10 libraries
  • 6 training schools
  • 6 health clinics
  • 4 transport boats
  • 2 playgrounds

Young Women’s Rights Associations

There are Young Women’s Rights Associations in all the villages that are visited by the boat schools.

“We support one another, share information in the villages and try to prevent child marriage and pregnancies at a young age,” says Maria, 19, in a red-blue headscarf, on a mission together with her friends from the association.

Floating library with internet

Rezwan’s ten floating libraries make three stops a day, and every village is visited three times a week. The libraries also have computers that run on solar energy.

“You have to know how computers work to have a good future, and we can help with that here. It’s most important of all for girls and young women to learn how to use computers and the internet. If they continue their education and gain new skills, it almost always raises the age at which they marry,” explains Rezwan.

Rezwan’s library contains books about girls’ rights and about nature, the environment and climate change.


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