UK: Not Seen and Not Heard

National Children's Bureau
The case of young women from Bangladeshi and Pakistani origins.
In 1998, the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) published the results of their comprehensive and groundbreaking research on ethnic minorities in Britain (Modood, T. et al 1998). What shocked me most of all was the proportion of young women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin who left school without qualifications: 52 per cent and 40 per cent respectively. The figures were enormously high, when compared with that for young white women - 26 per cent. Sadly, the figures have changed little since, leading to economic inactivity as high as 70 per cent for adult women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin (Dench, S. et al 2002) - a cycle of poverty and deprivation which will continue to have a spiralling effect, unless sustainable solutions are found.
The under-achievement figures were a far cry from newspaper headlines of ‘girls outperforming boys’. Whilst the attention has been given solely to boys falling behind girls in GCSE results (nationally), a disparity of such magnitude has been overlooked. Young women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin are falling behind everyone else and no one seems to worry or care about their under-achievement.

It is as if they were an invisible group; it did not matter much if they did or did not achieve: they are not a burden on the national purse – they are neither ‘young offenders’ nor causing nuisance and ‘anti-social behaviour’ in the neighbourhood, and they are rarely ending up as single teenage mothers relying on state benefits.

Causes of under-achievement

Research evidence suggests that poverty is one of the key factors leading to educational under-achievement in young people. Bangladeshi and Pakistani families are amongst the poorest in Britain (Rahman, M. et al 2002). In addition to poverty, family and cultural norms and values are another factor causing under-achievement, particularly for girls and young women. For many Bangladeshi and Pakistani families in Britain, the dominant cultural values advocate early marriage and motherhood - a woman’s primary role in life is considered to be a good wife and mother, for which she would not need formal education. Seventy-three per cent of Bangladeshi and 60 per cent of Pakistani adult women have no formal qualifications (Modood, T. et al 1998).

When parents place little value on educating girls, they are not likely to encourage their regular attendance at school: household chores come first and school second, reinforcing the traditional gender division. If they are themselves poorly educated, they are unlikely to motivate their children educationally. If they are poor, they are unlikely to have the enthusiasm or the energy to support their children with schoolwork or help them resolve difficulties at school. If, in addition to all these, there are other crises such as domestic violence, the girls may well be too worried and preoccupied with their mother’s welfare and safety, unable to concentrate on their education. Falling behind could bring about further apathy and low self-esteem.

This form of self-exclusion is rarely recorded as ‘truancy’, as it is often backed up by ‘sick notes’ and excuses. It is a form of self-exclusion, which is rarely acknowledged as an issue for the school, the family, the education authority or the Government.

Not in Education, employment or training, but in wedlock

Many young women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds leave school without qualifications because they are coerced into early marriage. Although, in the absence of research evidence, it is unknown how many, but black and minority ethnic women’s organisations running helplines and advice sessions have reported of a large number of calls and visits from distraught young women who have been forced to leave school to get married and have children.

The price they pay for defying early marriage is physical and psychological torment and violence. Black women’s organisations such as Southall Black Sisters and Newham Asian Women’s Project are often organising places of safety for young women who have been physically and mentally battered and bruised by their parents and older siblings for refusing to consent to marriage. This is often the only chance these young women have to think options through in a safe and supportive environment, and many do despite the enormous challenges facing them.

Facing the facts

Neither the State, nor the black and minority ethnic communities, with the exception of women’s organisations, has been brave enough to face the facts in the case of young Asian women’s educational under-achievement, its causes and devastating effects. They have both been complicit through their inactivity. The government institutions, ranging from education to social services have been, by and large, obsessed with ‘multiculturalism’, where they have overlooked oppressive cultural norms and values in minority ethnic communities in the interest of ‘tolerance’. In some cases, black and minority ethnic children and women have paid with their lives for this profound neglect (a recent example being the tragic case of Victoria Climbie).

Black and minority ethnic communities, on the other hand, have built a wall of denial around themselves, pretending that all is well and good and they can always be self-sufficient and tackle ‘their own problems’ themselves. Both tendencies are symptoms of a racist society, which is too ready to blame its social problems on ‘the foreigners’, be it minority ethnic communities or asylum seekers.

The educational under-achievement of Bangladeshi and Pakistani young women is a social issue that should concern all of us. The lid must be lifted on it. It needs to be examined openly and honestly and addressed effectively. It is a complex issue and there are no ‘quick fixes’. It requires commitment from a multitude of stakeholders: schools, parents and carers, social services, youth workers, community groups and the Connexions Service working together to provide adequate support for:

· Parents to recognise the value and importance of education for young women through becoming more involved with the school and the curriculum.
· Young women to make informed choices in their lives.

However, first and foremost, the voices of young Asian women must be heard. They have to be given the chance to become visible. Black and minority ethnic women’s organisations have for some time played such catalytic and facilitative role. However, they are still too few and far between and the existing groups have little core funding to sustain service and project development. Government departments are often too keen to involve black and minority ethnic women’s groups in research and consultations, but not so enthusiastic when it comes to raising their level of funding.

There should be more funding available through the DfES and the Home Office for community development in the black and minority ethnic communities, promoting the setting up of new projects by women, particularly young women’s projects, as well as supporting the existing ones to expand and reach out to many more isolated young women.

Mandana Hendessi
Equality/diversity consultant, formerly policy and campaigns director for the YWCA England & Wales.


(1) Modood, T., Berthoud, R., Lakey, J., Nazroo, J., Smith, P., Virdee, S. and Beishon, S. (1998) Ethnic Minorites in Britain: Divesity and Disadvantage, Policy Studies Institute.
(2) Dench, S., Evans, C., Meager, N., Williams, M. and Willison, R. (2002) Key Indicators of Women’s Position in Britain. Women & Equality Unit, DTI.
(3) Rahman, M., Palmer, G. and Kenway, P., (2002) Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.