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