Caitlin Burnett

Caitlin Burnett (Blind Education and Rehabilitation Development Organization – BERDO): Caitlin is a native of Williamsburg, Massachusetts. She received her BA in psychology and politics from Ithaca university in 2005. At the time of her fellowship, Caitlin was studying for a Master’s degree in ethics, peace and global affairs at the School of International Service at American University.

education questions

03 Aug

Ever since meeting Monju and talking with her about education and job opportunities for disabled people in Bangladesh, the topic of education has never entirely faded into the background. If anything, I just continue to struggle with new questions that arise or are posed to me.

Among these questions, perhaps the most critical is the one on which so many livelihoods depend: why, if someone will not be able to find a job, bother to give them education in the formal sector? To me, the gut reaction is clear – formal education, to some extent, is not only a means to an end (employment) but an end unto itself. But the question is much more nuanced than that. Informal education, particularly vocational training, can also be a hugely useful tool. If someone knows how to make baskets to support their family, what does it matter if they are literate or competent in long division?

There is certainly a great debate between formal and informal education and I’m unfortunately not particularly well versed in the arguments. But in small ways, the need for formal education has become clear during my time in Bangladesh. All it really took was seeing the smile of success on a young girl’s face.

Ruby is 14 years old, but is so petite that she looks much younger. Like many women and girls, particularly from poor families, she is the last to eat after serving every other member of the house and has probably suffered from malnutrition at some point. The house servant of the family I live with, Ruby spends her day cooking, cleaning, washing, baby sitting, and generally running errands. She has been living here in Dhaka for the past three years, several hours away from her family; six sisters, one brother, mother and father. Her salary is too low for her to afford to visit her parents – the money is of more use to pay for her family’s food anyways. Ruby is functionally illiterate in both Bangla and English, but as of late we had a huge breakthrough. Ruby can now correctly write her first name and recognize, pronounce, and write the English alphabet.

Over the past few weeks we have been over each letter countless times. Certain shapes tend to confuse her and the English shortcuts that I know (recognize L by the shape of your thumb and forefinger make on your left hand, for example) simply don’t translate in a way that makes sense. After nearly two months of almost constant practice, she has now mastered the alphabet. Almost every chance we are alone she will approach me to whisper the alphabet, drawing letters in the air, watching my face for corrections. Now the hard part, phonetics and attaching sounds to those hard won letters, will barely begin before I leave to go home.

In some ways, the lessons have been not only in English, but in patience too, in gratitude for the luck of my birth that placed me in a wealthy country with parents who valued education and had the resources to ensure that my childhood was work-free to pursue it, but most importantly in the power and empowerment that only a few letters can bring.

A few weeks ago a woman in BERDO’s microcredit group in Tongi told me, “We are illiterate. We have no power to use our knowledge,” and after many furtive lessons with Ruby it has finally dawned on me exactly how powerful even the most basic of formal educations can be. Those few letters are the seeds of power.

I am convinced that for the disabled community of Bangladesh formal education is even more vital. Marginalized in many of their communities and considered unfit for full participation in society, a basic success like Ruby’s propels disabled individuals forward as evidence of their capabilities. It is clear to me then that formal education must necessarily be the starting point to empower the disempowered, particularly disabled people in Bangladesh.

Like so many other development questions, we know how and why. Now, like phonetics, we must conquer the hard part – the resources have yet to be mobilized.

Posted By Caitlin Burnett

Posted Aug 3rd, 2007


  • Amy Zheng

    August 3, 2007


    Hi Caitlin,

    Extremely pleasant suprirse to hear from you. It would indeed be my pleasure to have a coffee/tea with you sometime and to share our experiences in Bangladesh. I am however, going to be returning to Australia soon for fundraising for my legal fellowship with a human rights NGO in India but I would love to see you before I go. My phone number is: 01726740699.

    Speak soon!


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