35. Chelemeye (children) in Bangladesh

I love spending time in the company of children. In Bangladesh that’s an easy thing to do: stop for a while in any public area and you will soon find yourself surrounded by a group, more often than not a group of children. The children that I meet every day here are bubbly and engaging and completely loveable, and it’s hard to resist interacting with them or photographing them. The times I’ve spent with children stand out vividly in my memory e.g. the tiny fingers of babies entwining my own as I sit in a CNG, in one of Dhaka’s interminable traffic jams; a group of little boys instructing me how to fly multi-coloured kites against the backdrop of the beautiful, all-white Sat Gumbad mosque; being accompanied around the ruins of a crumbling rajbari (raj=king; bari=house, so literally ‘king’s house or palace’) by a beautiful little girl who told me she was my bondhu (friend); chasing crabs on Inani beach with three playful, young girls; watching children gleefully jumping into Dhanmondi lake to cool off, where they were using pieces of styrofoam as floats; walking along a path hand-in-hand with two wee boys in rural Bogra to see frogs; playing with a group of children on stranded boats on St. Martin’s Island; and many more such memories. There are four little boys that I meet regularly near my workplace and, consequently, I have got to know them better over time. They’re full of fun and have joined me on a number of occasions, after work, at one of the tea stalls that line the lane to the main road from my office. When I first invited them to join me they were hesitant – naturally – but they’re more comfortable now that trust has been established. Our encounters invariably brighten my days.

For countless children in Bangladesh living conditions are extraordinarily difficult, and the rights of many – according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – are being violated.  In accordance with this UN Convention, every child is entitled to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. Three days ago, through a chance meeting in my workplace, I was reminded of some of the difficulties faced by children in Bangladesh – in this instance those of street children. The story continues below and inspired me to write this post.

Tokai: street children

It started when I quite literally and unexpectedly bumped into two children in a corridor at work. Over the next three days, I had the unexpected pleasure of spending some time with a group of children who were participating in training in rented rooms in the NILG (my workplace). The children I met in the corridor that morning led me to one of these rooms, where there was great excitement and chatter upon my arrival. (I wished, once again, that I could speak more Bangla!) This is when I met Faruqe Hussain (who was to become a good friend), and over the course of the following three days he explained what was going on. These children were ‘street children’ and were taking part in a life-skills training course. They had been selected to act as peer educators for other street children. Faruqe is the divisional coordinator of the project called Protection of Children at Risk (PCAR). This is a project under the auspices of the Ministry of Social Welfare, the Department of Social Services and UNICEF (ROSA). Faruqe works on a contract basis for the Ministry. He told me that there are up to 700,000 street children in Bangladesh, though numbers are difficult to ascertain and I have read varying estimates in different reports. Street children are known locally as ‘tokai’. In Bangla, ‘tokai kora’ means to pick up discarded things. Many children survive on the streets by recycling rubbish: hence, the name. Some may have parents living, but are in difficult or abusive relationships; some are on the streets by day working to support impoverished families and go home at night, usually to slum dwellings; others live on the streets with their parents; yet others are totally alone, orphaned or abandoned or victims of circumstance. For example, after Cyclone Aila (see post 34), many children, whose parents had died, made their way to Dhaka in search of a better life. Once on the streets, children become vulnerable to disease, injury, prostitution and violence, often with no choice but to get involved in petty crime such as stealing and mugging. Many pay the ultimate price with their lives.

The PCAR project has eight drop-in centres in Dhaka, and two in each of the other divisional cities throughout Bangladesh. It works through local NGOs and this is crucial in order to ensure that the work is completed. They reach children by holding open-air ‘schools’, facilitated by teachers and child peer-assistants (who are paid by the project). They try to make these ‘schools’ fun for the children, in order to entice them to return. At these events, children at highest risk (i.e. those totally alone without parents or relatives) are identified and targeted and told about the drop-in-centres. Each centre has about 40 residential spaces and those children at highest risk get first preference. There is also a programme of non-formal education at the drop-in centres.

The life-skills programme that I was witness to was designed by consultants who explored the efficacy of various kinds of training with children. They discovered that peer-to-peer education was much more effective with street children than adult-led education. The child peer-educators attend a training programme run by mentors. The mentors are government employees who are trained as master trainers. For the current year 2008/09 a group of thirty adults underwent training and only the best – I think twenty-three – were retained.

I asked Faruqe what would happen to the group of children I had just met, in a typical scenario. Would they get a chance to go to school for example? He said that they would, but that many are addicted to the freedom of the streets, and drop out of school after a short while. This is one reason why non-formal education works better. The project also helps the children to find work. Children can legally work from the age of 14 in Bangladesh, as long as they are not doing so in a hazardous environment. The internationally accepted age was lowered to meet specific country conditions. Faruqe pointed out that children of 14 years here are very different to their counterparts in the western world. Furthermore, the state cannot afford to support all children until they reach the age of 18.

I also asked Faruqe about the truth behind stories that street children were controlled and exploited by ruthless individuals, who coerced them into begging and selling in exchange for protection. Faruqe said that in some cases this could indeed be the case, particularly in relation to the most vulnerable children i.e. disabled children. However, many others, who sell popcorn and flowers, for example, are able to do so without any capital costs. A child selling popcorn for 10 taka gives the vendor 6 taka and makes 4 taka profit (€0.04). I meet a lot of these children every day during my commute to and from work.

Watching the children participating in the training sessions was inspirational. They were so full of energy, enthusiasm and commitment and it was hard to believe that these children had been living on the streets. Faruqe has promised that he will take me to visit the drop-in centres, and the children told me that they are looking forward to meeting me then. I would love to get involved in some way – maybe as a volunteer, at weekends or evenings, at the centres. I will look into possibilities when I visit.

I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to witness a development project that is working well. The children brought life and colour to the NILG for three days and I will miss them. I will miss Faruqe’s company too. It would be great if a project like this could be expanded further. Throughout Bangladesh there are other shelters provided by the government for children-in-need. Until recently these were rather inopportunely called ‘correctional centres’. Unfortunately they are not very well-run and neither are they child-centred. In fact, children don’t stay any length because they feel so unhappy. There is no doubt that the wonderful children I met over the last three days will make excellent peer educators.

Other issues for children

Poverty and child protection
Poverty underpins all the issues that affect children in Bangladesh – see post 30. Many children still suffer from malnutrition and hunger. All of the factors that make development difficult in Bangladesh also affect children e.g. natural disasters, political corruption and conflicts (see post 8). Because Bangladesh has one of the lowest rates of birth registration in the world, it makes it more difficult to protect children against abuses such as child marriage, trafficking and child labour. Furthermore, child protection legislation in Bangladesh is outdated.

Child marriage
The situation for adolescent girls in Bangladesh mirrors that of adult women (see post 44). It is characterised by inequality, discrimination and subordination within the family and society. With one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, a third of girls are married before they reach the age of 15 in Bangladesh, and a further third are married before reaching 18. Early marriage means early pregnancy. Adolescent mothers are more likely to suffer birth complications. Child mortality is at greater risk too. Research has shown that babies born to mothers younger than 15 are 50% more likely to die, than those born to mothers over the age of 20.

Every day in the paper there are stories that I find difficult to read. In the following story the child had a lucky escape – for now.

An 11-year old girl was rescued by local authorities from forced marriage in Baluadanga village under Dinajpur district yesterday. The girl – Chandni – is a school going child of Abdul Matin, a rickshaw puller in the village. She is the eldest of his four daughters. Locals said Chandni’s mother fixed her marriage to a local betel nut seller, Shanu, a married person, without the consent of the girl or the father. The marriage was about to take place yesterday. Even her gaye halud (pre-marriage ritual to apply turmeric paste on the bride) was held on Thursday night.  Informed, UNO Dhananjoy Roy of Dinajpur district headquarters along with police went to Chandni’s home and stopped the marriage. Talking to the Daily Star Chandni said she was very much happy that the marriage had been postponed at last. (The Daily Star Newspaper, 6th February, 2010.)

Though officially illegal, the practice is deeply engrained culturally: there  is a long tradition of childhood marriage in the region. I have to admit that I was taken aback when I read that Rabindranath Tagore (see post 29) married a child of 10 years of age. He was almost 23 at the time (1883). In all of the essays that I have read so far on Tagore, none pass commentary on this fact. Bhabatarini Debi, his wife, was born in the year 1873 at Fultala, a village in the district of Jessore, in East Bengal (present day Bangladesh). Her father was a minor employee on the Tagore estates. The name Bhabatarini was considered an old-fashioned one by members of the Tagore family, and so her name was changed to Mrinalini Debi. Her first child was born when she was only 13 years old. Rabindranath’s daughters too were married very early in their lives: Madhurilata (Bela) at 15, Renuka (Rani) at 10, Mira (Atasi) at 13. (Incidentally his son, Rathindranath, married at 22.) Of course I understand that the historical and cultural contexts must be  considered, but I can’t help thinking about my grandmother, Annie, who was born just over 1 year before Rani. While Rani married at the age of 10, my grandmother didn’t marry until she was in her late 30s.

Child labour
There are conflicting estimates concerning the extent of child labour in Bangaldesh. I have seen figures quoted of between 2 million and 5 million. Most agree that at least 13% of children are involved – often in abusive, hazardous situations. Some of these may be street children. To get an idea of the kinds of work undertaken by children, you could have a look at a photo story titled Born to Work  by Bangladeshi photographer GMB Akash. It’s part of his photographic investigation into child labour. Many children too are brought from rural villages to work in the homes of middle and upper class families in the cities, where they work long hours and are often subject to abuse. Some are as young as five or six: their parents sometimes get a small amount of money and are comforted to think that their children have food and shelter and an opportunity to earn a little money. Some commentators have described some of these situations as akin to slavery. Until outlawed in 2002, Bangladeshi children were amongst those trafficked to the United Arab Emirates for use as child jockeys in the sport of Camel Racing. Thankfully, this is now outlawed: the children have been replaced by robots.

Sexual harassment, sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking
Sex-related crimes against children are common in Bangladesh, though reliable data is not available. For example, some are kidnapped and trafficked into the sex trade. Others are sold into such slavery by a parent or relative. (This video highlights the plight of young girls – some as young as 12 – who have been sold into prostitution in one of Bangladesh’s 17 brothels.) While there are now a number of organisations working to address sexual exploitation and trafficking, there are very few working with those who have been affected by child sexual abuse – a topic that is taboo in Bangladesh. Sexual harassment, known locally by the euphemism ‘eve-teasing’, is a feature of life for young girls and women – often with deadly consequences (see post 44).

Positive developments

Things are changing slowly in Bangladesh and it is now on track to meet Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 4 (to reduce child mortality). Its under-five mortality rate has fallen from 148 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 52 per 1,000 live births in 2009. It is predicted too that Bangladesh will reach the MDG target of halving the numbers living in extreme poverty by 2015. Primary school enrolment rates have increased to 90%, and between 2006 and 2009 drop-out rates have been greatly reduced. Now, 80% of students complete primary education whereas in 2006 that rate was 64%. (Though of course schooling does not always necessarily equate to meaningful learning – see post 30.) There are many projects working to improve the situation for children in Bangladesh, like the one aimed at helping street children, discussed above, that I was introduced to by Faruqe.

Below are some photographs of children I met during my time in Bangladesh. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (66 photographs in all). Enjoy!

91 Paharpur Buddhist monastery ruins 7th-12th centuries

While all of my photographs depict smiling, happy children, these smiles often mask difficult living conditions. Take a look at this UNICEF video, narrated by 12-year old Parvez who lives in a crowded slum in Dhaka, in which he gives us an insight into his situation and that of his friends.

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