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‘Almost half the primary school population is dropping out’

The primary school dropout rates in Bangladesh, with a population of 150 million, have always been high, running at around 38 per cent, but the recent statistics call for immediate action and desperate help.

According to a study conducted by 10 NGOs with the Commonwealth Education Fund, the dropout rate has increased from 33 per cent in 2002 to 47 per cent in 2007. Moreover, the net enrolment of six to ten-year-olds declined to 93 per cent in 2005 from 97 per cent in 2002.

The increasing dropout rate also suggests that Bangladesh is unlikely to attain a 100 per cent completion of primary education by the MDG deadline of 2015.

According to experts, this finding has been a major shock for the education sector. The government’s recent efforts to generate more funds from multilateral lending agencies and bilateral donors are being questioned.

‘The dropout rate is almost half the primary school population, which is alarming,’ says Salma Akhter, professor, Institute of Education and Research (IER), Dhaka University. ‘This also reveals that the overall system has not been effective and immediate actions need to be taken.’

The Second Primary Education Development Programme, known as PEDP-II, conducted the latest survey all over Bangladesh in March, this year. The report was prepared in June but according to reports the findings have put the project officials in a fix over when to make them public.

The government provides 64 per cent of the funds of the Tk 5,000 crore programme. The Asian Development Bank is the leading of the 11 partners of the six-year (2004–2009) programme for the development of primary education. The downward trend took place during the second primary education development programme (PEDP-II), an ambitious, US$7 billion project funded by the government (63.9 per cent) and development agencies (36.1 percent) that runs from 2003 to 2009.

According to the US Agency for International Development, a partner in the PEDP, Bangladesh’s primary school dropout rate remains unacceptably high, especially for children living in poverty and from minority families.

However, according to Siddiqur Rahman, Professor, Dhaka University and also someone who is a part of PEDP-II, the dropout rate has not increased but has improved. ‘Earlier, the dropout rate was understated in an attempt to gain confidence, while in reality the rate was much higher — around 57 per cent or so. Therefore, this rate is in fact, much lower than before, indicating that the recent efforts have been effective. Moreover, one needs to also consider the successful enrolment rate running at 97 per cent.’

Among those children who are not enrolled and those who have dropped out, a significant number come from poor households and live in rural areas, urban slums, and areas with high populations of ethnic minorities. According to academicians, the reasons for the lack of quality in education services include lack of well-trained teachers, particularly in remote areas where the poorest and most marginalised children live.

Despite all the accomplishments of the past decade and a half, there are still a number of urgent challenges which must be addressed in primary education, says Maniruzzaman Miah, former vice chancellor of Dhaka University and chairman of the National Education Council.

‘While the dropout rate remains high, of those who remain in school, less than half achieve the expected competencies by the end of the primary cycle. Access, equity and quality remain the major challenges,’ says Akhter.

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Primary education’s moment of truth

For nine-year-old Hamid, the primary school that he goes to in old Dhaka is only associated with horror and repulsion. Not the regular horror and repulsion that all children feel towards schooling, this is worse and justified too. Despite the orders of their apparently omnipotent parents, many children in the neighbourhood are refusing to go to school. ‘And why wouldn’t they?’ asks a mother of two primary school students, in Lalbagh. ‘The state of primary schools is depressing - not only do they fail to offer an encouraging environment for children but they also provide unskilled and crude teachers, who seem to find it very difficult to understand children.’

For this teacher, who has completed her HSC examination two years ago, teaching itself is a rigour and she follows the same Victorian system, the conventional way of having children learn a prescribed syllabus by rote. ‘Sometimes I just lose my nerve trying to make sure that we get done with the syllabus and have them memorise everything- after all, if they don’t then they don’t learn,’ she explains confidently.

‘But the job itself is frustrating. I stay here for long hours and in return get almost nothing for a salary. Where is my motivation to do better?’ While teachers themselves understand the need for quality, they say there is little scope for further on the job training.

Parents meanwhile are continually struggling to make sure that their children are getting a quality education even though they attend school. ‘I do not even know what my daughter should learn by the time she passes primary education- she continues to memorise the given tasks and there seems to be nothing beyond that. Add to that, most often she does not seem to enjoy school because of the teacher’s behaviour and the environment,’ says Selina Begum, a mother of three, living in Kakrail.

As one can imagine, the frustration is mutual for students, parents and teachers. ‘I left school when I was 11,’ says thirteen-year-old Maliha, referring to a Bogra based primary school. ‘All we did at school was memorise lines that never made sense to me, and if I could not do so, the teacher would mistreat me and often hit me. At the end, I just stopped going to school.’

‘Those who complete primary education do not end up receiving basic competencies and more often than not, the achievement from it is nil,’ admits a government primary school head teacher, based in Dhaka’s Paltan. ‘So even though we see high enrolment, the quality of education has not improved. The whole idea of delivering these children certain skills is not achieved at the end.’

Primary education strategists, researchers and experts suggest that success is achieved only when students are engaged as real participants in the learning process. But instead, the primary education system has been evolved in a way where the students, instead of being partners and active participants, very soon after their entry into schools, turn into passive participants, subordinates and lose all initiatives and interest in studies and ultimately turn into dropouts. This dropout rate, no doubt compounded by factors such as poverty, has translated into 47 percent this year, a total of 15 per cent increase in two years.

According to recent reports, Bangladesh has about 16.5 million children attending 80,395 official primary schools where more than 320,000 teachers are employed, with many secondary level schools having primary facilities. In addition to that, there are more than 20,000 informal primary schools run by NGOs and the private sector where children are taught up to the third grade.

More than 65 per cent of primary schools are under direct government management, with the rest registered as non-governmental schools, receiving assistance, support and being subsidised by the government. It is also undeniable that primary education has expanded significantly, in the past decade.

While it is noted that some primary schools have improved significantly, and the country has made considerable progress towards achieving the millennium development goal of universal primary education, the state of primary schools in general, across the country, specifically remote districts is of dubious quality.

Add to that, this past month, the country saw protests from organisations of primary school teachers and associations protesting against the government’s recent decision to hand over the responsibility of supervision of primary schools in 20 Upazilas across the country. While state-run primary education is crumbling due to sheer failure in management and operation, some see the move to involve non-government actors in training teachers as a pre-cursor to a shift towards privatising primary education – an allegation that BRAC has denied squarely.

‘We will be dealing with only the quality of education and work on reducing the drop out rate,’ explains Anwarul Haque, director of Public affairs and Communications at BRAC. ‘We are not dealing with any form of administrative intervention or taking over primary schools. Our aim is to purely work on quality that needs major attention. The protests have come as a result of the inherent perception that people seem to have about NGOs and their fear of privatization of the primary education system.’

Despite these explanations, experts feel the move was undefined and unclear. ‘This was not discussed earlier and even though BRAC claims that they are not looking at the administrative issue and do not have much control, documents and notices clearly suggest that BRAC is being given a major responsibility of managing the primary schools in 20 Upazilas,’ says Zafar Iqbal, writer and educationist.

‘While this is understandable that there is a need for improvement, the larger issue here is the fact that BRAC specialises in non-formal primary education program rather than a formal system as this and these 20 upazilas consist of a huge number of schools. Therefore, the matter needed to be sorted more carefully,’ Iqbal says.

Experts also continue to point out, that primary education should remain under the government and private sector control can prove to be damaging.

According to the Article 17 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, primary education shall be the responsibility of the State. To bear this responsibility primary education in Bangladesh underwent a great deal of changes and development during the last few years, but the issue of quality and structure remain to be a matter of great magnitude and national concern.

‘Bangladesh does have one of the largest universal primary education systems in the world,’ says Salma Akhter, professor, Institute of Education and Research (IER), University of Dhaka. ‘It is noted that education system has expanded and reached out greater number of students. But the larger question remains that how much have we achieved in terms of quality? And how much has been actually the learning achievement?’

According to professor Maniruzzaman Miah, former vice chancellor of Dhaka University and chairman of National Education Council, ‘The standard is much less than desirable but the problem is in the teachers’ quality, management and monitoring system. Primary education must not be only text book based; it should propagate knowledge.’

Yet, over the years any form of increase in budgetary allocation for development of the education sector has not been translated into cost-effective spending, and sometimes, a large part of the annual development budget remains unspent, say experts and academics.

The existing institutional structure needs enhanced capacity to utilise more and more resources to develop the sector,’ points out professor Anisuzzaman, University of Dhaka. ‘Not only is there a dire need for capacity building but also proper and effective planning in the overall sector.’

‘Improving the standard of teaching is crucial. Teachers are poorly trained and paid. Teaching methods and materials are generally sub-standard, especially in government schools. Schools are in poor condition and detrimental to learning. Moreover, the entire system and structure needs to be provided,’ points out Miah.

Primary education has evolved through various challenges and taken decades to shape. Around 1973, after independence, primary schools were nationalised as part of a larger policy framework. These nationalised primary schools began to cater a major portion of primary population. Subsequently, teachers and headmasters became employees of the central government with their ties and their accountability to the local communities that they serve almost severed.

Presently, these schools are directly run by the government which pays 100 per cent of staff costs and grants for school infrastructure and free textbooks for all their students. Along with this financial assistance, the responsibility over the year, has been extended to non-government organizations too. ‘But, these private organizations, extended only support to some of the larger activities by the government,’ says Siddiqur Rahman, professor, Institute of Education and Research, University of Dhaka, and heading the Primary Education Development Program(PEDP).

PEDP II represents a major operational part of the government’s Education for All (EFA) and poverty reduction agenda, which are linked with the Millennium Development Goals. ‘We have been looking over the overall primary education program and planning to ensure better development and training programs are served for the teachers. We are constantly working to better the services,’ adds Rahman.

‘While we do recognise the many improvements within the primary system lack of proper monitoring and transparency in the operation of the system has been a major issue of concern,’ adds Salma Akhter. ‘Moreover, even though you have greater enrolment, at the same time the drop out rate has been increased to 47%- almost half the group, which is alarming.’

Inclusion of BRAC

On May 23, this year, the government approved the pilot primary education project under which BRAC would work to improve overall education and classroom environment in the 20 upazilas by training teachers and making school management committees (SMC) more effective.

According to primary teachers, experts and academics, this move comes as a shock and a major shift in the policies so far. According to them, this move would not improve the standard of primary education; rather shift primary education control to private sector control.

‘I feel this step has not been a good idea,’ says Zafar Iqbal. ‘BRAC is covering a major portion and that is undesirable, specifically because, they have no experience in delivering formal primary education as such. Moreover, the whole process of getting BRAC involved and their role has been highly non-transparent and confusing.’

‘The pilot programme of Brac will assist the government’s second phase of Prmary Education Development Programme (PEDP). Monitoring of the government programme on primary education has not been given to Brac or any other NGO,’ said Khondaker M Asaduzzaman, director general of directorate of primary education in response to this past week’s outrage by the primary school groups.

‘We know from the notices and documents, that this is the first time that a private body is working along side government, instead of providing support,’ says Zafar Iqbal. ‘This goes against the principle of keeping the primary education out of private hands.’

‘It could be presented differently with more strategic thinking and preparatory groundwork involving key stakeholders. NGOs (not just BRAC) working with primary education could be supported by PEDP to fill in the educational/school gaps (through establishing schools in remote areas, promotion of pre-primary centers, inclusive education for ethnic minorities, disabled, street/working children and similar others and inclusion of life/ occupational skills) as appropriate,’ suggests Anish Borua, an expert who has worked extensively with BRAC education program in the 80s and later at the Dhaka-based ngo CAMPE.

Brac has no intention of privatising or commercialising primary schools in the country and its pilot project, funded solely by Brac, said Brac chairperson Fazle Hasan Abed told reporters last week.

‘Since Brac is funding the pilot project, it will not use public funds allotted for Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP-II) of the government. We have no plan to take any fund of the PEDP-II or any fund from foreign donor agencies,’ added Abed.

‘There are 500 Upazilas in the country, so the 20 that BRAC is in charge of is insignificant,’ says Rahman. When asked about BRAC’s role, the PEDP officials refused to speak about the issue.

According to primary and mass education adviser, Rasheda K Choudhury, ‘We need supports from all stakeholders including NGOs for improving the quality of education in primary level. With this end in view we gave an NGO the responsibility of monitoring all the primary schools in twenty Upazilas across the country. It is an experimental programme, not a permanent one.’ She further said that the education ministry and directorate of Primary Education will monitor the pilot project and make a report after completion of mid-term and final supervision evaluating the performance of the NGO. ‘The ministry will cancel the pilot project if the NGO fails to reach the target.’

Be it experimental or a long term process, the steps that have been taken recently needed to be discussed in a more accountable way and it is evident that the process was not a transparent one or clear to the major experts, academics, primary school organizations and associations, let alone the general public- who are, lest all the other actors forget, the masters of the state. Therefore, primary education system being as crucial as it is to any country across the world needs to stand on a stronger platform and steps need to be taken to clarify the confusions.

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To the root of the problem (with Turaj Ahmad)

Syed has never been able to cope with stress, his family would say. At thirty, he is divorced; he has lost his job several times, had disagreements with his father and walked out of home. He has spent months trying to justify his own actions. He never wanted to be this way- always anxious and unstable. Like others, he had his own plans. ‘I had dreamt up so many things that now seem impossible,’ he mutters. ‘I have had difficulties in coping almost everywhere. It started from home to school, to work and turned out to be a never ending cycle.’

‘And everyone would say, I just need to be more focused, but my mind is not.’

All of this started very early for Syed. At four, his parents thought his anxious behavior were just symptoms of a ‘naughty and restless’ child. He had developed speech a lot later than other children and his parents only thought he would learn soon. And indeed he did. But, there were bigger problems that everyone failed to notice.

At school, Syed was constantly singled out- often labeled as a ‘problem child’. His teachers were tired of him- the fact that he could not concentrate, would become absolutely anxious, and often not respond at all, never made sense to his teachers. He was just a problem child and needed to be punished and detained after school for throwing a tantrum in class.

Syed’s story is nothing new. There are always those children who are just ‘too naughty’, ‘restless’, ‘problematic’ and more. But, increasingly, researchers, doctors and experts in the field of child mental health and neurology point out that the unusual behavior of some children are not a case simple ‘difficult’ children at all. In fact, experts say that many of these are cases cognitive mental disorders and neurological problems that develop from a very early age causing behavioral disorders in them. Left untreated, as a number of studies show, children, either have mental fallbacks or lack developmental skills and proper growth, and end up miserably.

When untreated, mental health disorders can lead to school failure, family conflicts, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide, point out studies at a later age. Indeed, untreated mental health disorders can be very costly to families, communities, and the health care system and there are enough evidences to prove so.

These disorders develop from a number of reasons including child malnutrition, infection, trauma, deprivation and neglect and can often developed while the child is in the mother’s womb and is also related to the mother’s health. Left untreated, these functional limitations can lead to permanent disabilities, virtually impossible to treat at an adult age.

There are many disorders that a child can have from a very early age. These include any anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, any depressive disorder, substance abuse, pervasive development disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, Tourette’s disorder, any eating disorder and bipolar disorder.

This is where early detection becomes absolutely imperative. As the first National Congress of the Bangladesh Society for Child Neurology, Development and Disability (BSCNDD) titled ‘Improving Quality of Life of Children with Neurodevelopment Disabilities’ kicked off at the Bangladesh College of Physician & Surgeons (BCPS) last week with a number of professionals involved in the diagnosis, treatment, longer term management and rehabilitation of children taking part, it hammered home the points that neurodevelopment impairments was now a major issue in the country and affected many children which in turns bears a huge cost on the community, that early detection and intervention was necessary and that community awareness and medical expertise could only be spread through the active involvement of the government. Integrating child mental health in the overall health care system is now an urgent necessity.

The need for early intervention

The results of some of the research conducted by the Dhaka Shishu Hospital (DSH) and others shed light on the fact that early intervention can stimulate an improvement in the overall state of children with mental health problems.

A study titled ‘Profile of Child Mental Health: Problems attending the child development centre of a tertiary hospital in Bangladesh’, conducted by a team of doctors at Dhaka Shishu Hospital, headed by Dr Naila Zaman Khan, a professor of child neurology, stressed on the fact that mental health is an essential part of child development and neurodisability service. Better opportunity provided for early intervention in a multidisciplinary approach can result in better parental compliance for treatment of their children.

‘Children who are often termed as problematic at school, actually need help and support of the teachers the most and there is a desperate need for professionals to handle such cases,’ says Dr Ann Le Couteur, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, New Castle University, on her recent visit.

Steps need to be taken to identify which nutrients can help improve brain development and function during the early childhood and gestation, with the goal of improving cognitive development and decreasing neuron-psychiatric disorders. This is exactly what the study ‘The effect of early Human Diet on Caudate volumes and IQ’ by a team headed by Elizabeth B Isaacs, MRC Childhood Nutrition Research Centre, Radiology and Physics Unit, University College London Institute of Child Health, United Kingdom, showed- that human brain structure can be influenced by early nutrition.

‘Besides this, there is also need for special emphasis on caring pregnant women; this is also a crucial time for a child’s development. Specifically, in Bangladesh, we have a number of women who are not only denied the basic care during pregnancy, but they lack proper nutrition, mental support and much more,’ says Dr. Naila.

Why the government needs

to be involved

In Bangladesh, there are about 18 Shishu Bikash Kendra (SBK), a centre were children with neurodevelopment disorders are diagnosed and treated, the first being set up by Shishu Hospital.

‘In the past fifteen years a body of health professionals, including child neurologists, child care physicians trained in neurodevelopment, developmental therapists, child psychologists, psychosocial counselors and neurophysiologists have been trained within the country and in key institutions in the UK and other countries,’ says Dr Naila also secretary general of the BSCNDD.

According to the statistics, the number of children with functional limitations in the country adds up to approximately 50 lakh. The members of the society believe that the necessary resources to treat such children are available in the country, however, the presence of proper institutions are lacking, which is where the government must step in.

‘We have the experience and technology to reach out to the grassroots and therefore it is necessary to scale up services and set up child development centers in hospitals which we urge the government to provide,’ says Dr Naila.

‘The amount of time that goes into looking at one child is a lot and the whole process of breaking the news to parents who get to know that their children have challenges to face is also difficult and hence time-consuming. And that is why we need SBK centres at all major hospitals across the country,’ adds Dr Naila.

‘A proper place for diagnosis, a centre, is required with trained manpower especially in the rural areas of the country,’ adds national professor M R Khan.

‘It is difficult to differentiate between mental disorder and developmental impairments, and that is why it is important that for day-to-day clinical practice, there is a broad based assessment than just a single focus,’ adds Dr Ann.

‘Most often development impairments tend to multidimensional and complex,’ says Dr Helen McConachie, Professor of Child Clinical Psychology, New Castle University, who has worked extensively on autism. ‘You do not have a set of specific symptoms that will tell you that this child has this developmental or mental problem and hence it is important that there are programs that ensure step by step, friendly environment, with skilled professionals.’

‘It is also important to understand that it is not just important to ensure that only professionals work, but everyone in the community must work together,’ says Dr Ann. ‘In a country like Bangladesh, the risks are very high and it can impact the society. Professionals working with families need to be able to recognise problems of distress and disruption that children and adolescents face during development and understand the factors that are more likely to increase or decrease the risk of emotional and behavioral difficulties.’

The government response

The government is yet to integrate child mental health and bring it dominantly within the national system where by schools, centers and other relevant stakeholders will have sufficient expertise to ensure proper development and ability to handle cases of mental disorder and development of a child.

Zahurul Alam, president, National Forum of Organisations Working with the Disabled (NFOWD), pointed out that as a result of some flawed policies implemented by previous governments regarding rules of business many children with disabilities had been filtered out of the educational institutions with only four percent of such children attending schools.

However, he lauded the measures taken by the current caretaker government regarding the issue. ‘A big gap between the activists and the recipients has been in existence but hopefully as a result of the Convention of Rights of Children with Disability signed in December 2007 which will come into effect soon, this gap will be bridged and disabled children will come through,’ he said.

‘Several hundred children are born in the country with neurological problems that make them permanently disabled,’ said Dr. A.M.M. Shawkat Ali, adviser to the ministry of health and family welfare. ‘There are two stings of support to deal with this issue that can come from the donor agencies and the corporate sector that is in terms of providing funds and of helping raise awareness,’ he said.

While dealing with children is difficult as it is, it is more so with children with functional limitations and according to the Health Adviser, only a limited number of people are aware of the facts regarding disabilities especially among the rural population.

The health adviser affirmed that the infrastructure in the health sector has improved while urged the BSCNDD to take a holistic approach to the task in hand. ‘This program needs to be strengthened to meet all needs to prevent neurological problems and it is important to institutionalise to sustain these services.’

According to Shawkat, the government is committed to work on child disability that is a curse for not only a family but also for the state. ‘Prevention is better than cure and therefore the government would look forward to receiving a proposal from the society,’ he concluded.

The way forward

The first National Congress of the Bangladesh Society for Child Neurology, Development and Disability was concluded with the adoption of the 13-point Dhaka Declaration to protect children from the hazards of early child malnutrition, infection, trauma, deprivation and neglect.

Dr Naila announced the Dhaka declaration with some other major recommendations: to set up Shishu Bikash Kendras in all major divisional and district public hospitals, training in multiple disciplines deemed necessary for optimum short- and long-term management of children with neuro-developmental impairments and functional limitations, and teaching of certificate, diploma and degree courses related to child neurology and development.

The declaration also includes transfer of advancement technology through national regional and international collaboration, updating knowledge and skills through seminars, symposiums, and congresses on a regular basis at the district, divisional, national, regional and international levels.

‘We believe that posterity will deem the congress to be a milestone for public health as our aim is to establish the need for child development centers across major public hospitals in Bangladesh,’ says Dr Naila.

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So which school is your child going to?

Not long after your child has graduated from a crawl to walk, and has learnt to pronounce ‘ammu’ and ‘abbu’ clearly, you are face to face with one of the biggest headaches of your life. Which school do I send him to?

Over the last decade and a half, with the gap between English medium education and Bengali medium education becoming stark, an increasing number of parents now prefer to send their children to English medium school to ensure a better future. Catching on to the demand, English mediums schools have sprouted up in almost every corner of Dhaka city. So, which school do I send him to? You ask.

The best schools in town require a child to be registered nearly two years prior to entry that would mean for a first time entrant, when the child has barely turned two. You will have to prepare the child for an interview, prepare for an interview yourself, know people with influence who can recommend your child, your education and financial background will come under scrutiny, buy expensive admission forms, and keep in touch with the school regularly where you might receive at times rude, and in most occasions indifferent treatment by overworked school staff.

If you are amongst the rare lucky ones admitted, (it feels like you have been admitted more than your child), your real struggle begins. First up, you pay the admission fees of anywhere between Tk 20,000 to Tk 50,000 for the admission. Your tuition fees vary from Tk 2,000 to Tk 10,000 for any mid to top range school. You buy the school uniform, the text and exercise books right down to the pencil and erasers from the shop or shops referred to by the schools. Every month you make special payments for school development, school picnic etc.

The side-effects of this very good education is that your child is loaded with homework, which most often requires a private tutor to sort out. As he grows, you need private tutors for different subjects before finally when he is ready for O Level exams where you pay the school their fees, pay the examination authorities astronomical fees and pay individual subject teachers their fees and may be one or two extra home tutors for the really difficult subjects.

Before you know it, from dawn to dusk, your life revolves around your child’s education.

Even about a decade ago, getting a child into a school was not a terror, as much as it is today. Ask any parent who has been hunting schools, who has had her child enrolled in a good school- you will know it’s not just the hard-earned-income that they put in, but also a lot of time, energy and patience.

‘I still remember the painstaking hours of sorting out the long list, speaking to people, and standing in long endless lines for hours under the sun and even being interviewed to get my child into a school!’ says Ehsan Rahman, a banker.

‘The whole procedure of getting a child into a good school has become so frustrating,’ says Tanzila Rahman, a 35 year-old mother. ‘For one, there are limited number of schools that provide quality education and as a result they are hard to impress! Next, for a normal middle-class family, it’s hard to be able to afford the ever increasing costs of this education.’

Surging Demand

Over the years, the demand for quality education or rather English education has increased dramatically with the dramatic slide in the public education system.

‘Having your child attend an English medium school is not only a statement of identity, but also a ticket to success,’ agrees Selina Aman, whose two children attend Sunbeams. ‘The admission procedure is complex and strict, but it is not the fault of the schools – there is just so much demand, they must be able to meet it and make the best of the situation.’

The demand for English Medium schools has indeed surged in the last ten years, and it continues to increase significantly each year. ‘These schools used to only cater to the affluent people in the country. Today, more and more middle class and lower middle class families seek admission,’ points out a senior teacher at Sunnydale. ‘Now we have parents who actually go out of their way to afford the expenses and ensure their children receive a sound education.’

‘There are more young people and hence a greater need to more quality education,’ points out Kaiser Huq, professor department of English at Dhaka University. ‘There is dire need to provide quality education.’

Complicated admission forms

The academic year for almost all schools begins from June, but the sale of admission forms for next year’s admission begins the previous July. ‘First, there is very little time during which the forms are sold, and second, the prices of forms are even high!’ points out Mahjabeen Khanam, mother of two.

Further, today’s admission forms require very detailed and complex information. ‘In some schools, we are asked to give our income, family, job descriptions and much more,’ says Jafan Karim, a mother of a six-year-old attending Aga Khan School.

‘The reason we ask for so much information is because we are looking for a sound, long-term relationship. We therefore want to know as much as possible about the family and the child,’ says Yasmeen Murshed, chairperson of Scholastica, the leading English-medium school in the country.

Selection procedures

Some schools are even adopting a lottery system which totally ignores merit in their selection process, say parents who have to go through a big hassle to compile all the relevant information. ‘I think the system of lottery is just utterly ridiculous,’ says Nargis Khanam, mother of a student who goes to Sunnydale. ‘It is simply unfair, since whether or not you get the chance to put your child in a leading school depends upon your luck, and not on merit.’

While some schools are adopting the lottery method in an attempt to make the procedure less lengthy, others stick to selecting individually. ‘There are personal reasons behind it,’ explains Yasmeen Murshed. ‘We have to take into consideration siblings and relatives of our existing students and staff members. We also want to ensure that we look at each application and consider them.’

‘When there are thousands of students applying for these schools each year, there ought to be a strict selection procedure,’ points out Batool Sarwar, Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.

Parent and student interviews

‘Some leading schools require interviews of parents of students,’ retorts a parent, Fazle Sahan Karim, a father of three children. ‘In the interviews, you are asked about your educational background, income and other personal details! My question is, isn’t it my fundamental right to admit my child in a good school? Do my qualifications and job details decide my child’s abilities and future?’

‘We do so in an attempt to ensure personalised service,’ explains a senior teacher of a reputed school. ‘As far as I know, parents are not harassed in the interview; rather we want to ensure that we get to know them better. It is true that we do have certain criteria and we have a tough admission process, but only to ensure a quality education.’

Admission exams

Most parents worry about the entry exams that are prerequisites to admission. ‘We must prepare children months before the admission, as most exams are so nerve wracking and difficult,’ complains Sujoy Alam, a father of two. ‘The exam is followed by an interview for successful candidates, which makes the whole experience scary and demotivating for the child.’

‘The entry examinations are very important,’ says a principal of an English medium school. ‘We aim to test not only the merit of the student but also be able to understand how we can accommodate a child. Moreover, in order to ensure quality you must ensure selection. Add to that, we make a promise of commitment to the parents, so isn’t it important for us to know if we can keep it or not?’

Irrational conditions

‘What about the conditions that are attached with the admission of a child?’ asks Nabiha Sultana, a mother of a Scholastica student. ‘They actually make us sign an agreement under which we cannot sue the school under any circumstances.’

‘This rule came after a bitter experience,’ explains Yasmeen Murshed. ‘But, we mention clearly in our school handbook that, if there are problems, we are more than willing to sort it out with the parents and we always welcome parents to discuss problems.’

Admission fees

‘We are aware of the rising living costs and the hardships that parents must go through to get in a good school. But then again, it’s a conscious decision you must make,’ says Yasmeen Murshed. ‘We are a private organization and we have to pay very high taxes and receive no funding what so ever. Hence, it is difficult on our part as well.’

To most parents, the whole admissions procedure is not worth it, as students often have to seek private tuition anyway. However, despite these debates, others feel that the quality of education offered is as good as in schools abroad. ‘The leading schools offer much more than just good education. They have extra-curricular activities, participation in various issues and much more,’ points out Shaheena Amin, who moved with her children to Dhaka recently. ‘Whether it is in terms of prospects of further education, or in terms of educational and cultural values, they do make a significant contribution.’

‘We must remember that, at the end, these are private schools and more importantly, these English schools do not have any form of funding or subsidies and depend entirely on their own resources. The schools are recruiting skilled instructors which is a huge expense itself,’ says Batool Sarwar. ‘Moreover, at the end of the day, these schools are private. In a market economy, in order to ensure quality which is scarce, they have to charge higher amounts.’

Failure of public education

Over the years, the debate of private schools- surging demand, atrociously high fees and painful procedures, invariably stem from the failure of the public education.

‘Had there been a quality public education for students, middle class families would not have to worry about getting their children in private schools,’ points out Sabina Zaman, a mother of three and a teacher. ‘It’s a fact- the public education is such that it won’t get you anywhere, except for, of course handful of schools.’

‘Ideally education is ought to be free, at least up to secondary level,’ points out Kaiser. ‘What we have however is up to primary education which is mandatory. Then again, primary schools are suffering from sheer mismanagement.’

Indeed, one would not be incorrect in stating that the primary education system in Bangladesh is in shambles. ‘In terms of quality it lacks even the basic requirements.

Less and less well-trained teachers are opting for primary teaching positions,’ points out an expert.

‘Then again, we must also see that there are various factors at work. For one there is more demand and need for training. Compared to that we have limited resources,’ explains Kaiser Huq. ‘The quality nevertheless remains to be a serious problem. Thus causing the huge demand in private education. While attempts to improve are being taken, we face the question of as to, even in a private system, should education be left uncontrolled?’

‘There is need to control the rising fees and the sense of accountability,’ adds Huq.

Formation of a

regulatory board

Against the backdrop of much debate concerning the quality of english schools, the government last year announced its decision to set up a separate education board to regulate and bring uniformity to the English-medium education system in the country. According to sources, the committees on regulating English-medium schools are reviewing their curriculum and verifying their teachers’ training have already completed first drafts of their proposed reforms.

Across all echelons society, the general idea is being welcomed by not only parents but also by teachers and principals of the top English medium schools. ‘This may very well make our lives easier,’ says Nasib Khan, a father and a teacher. ‘The erratic conditions and “miscellaneous expenses” that we pay may be reduced, if not end altogether.’

‘We welcome the idea,’ says Yasmeen Murshed. ‘It is a positive move and I believe it will induct us into the mainstream and recognize the contribution we make to society.’

‘I think the formation of a board is not going to effective in anyway. For one, the government regulators lack any knowledge of the curriculum it self. It is going to be yet another board of corruption and red tapism,’ says a principal preferring anonymity.

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Creating hope

She likes the colours the most. There is an unmistaken spark in her eyes, as her little fingers move through the colourful beads- red, green, yellow, purple and pink.

‘The pink one- that’s the one I made,’ giggles nine-year-old Nasreen.

‘I loved making the collage the best- mine is this one- a big sunflower,’ she says enthusiastically as she points towards the picture hanging on the wall.

‘It’s my day today,’ she says as she runs towards her friends. Indeed, it is a big day for Nasreen and her nineteen friends. Their eyes speak of the same enthusiasm, pride, joy and hope- it’s their very first exhibition.

Nasreen has spent most part of her life on the streets, waiting on the signals, sometimes managing to sell candies and at other times begging.

‘I never held a pencil in my hands before, never drew a flower before,’ she says. Her father, a rickshaw puller, never thought he could send his daughter to a school, let alone, see her work in an exhibition. ‘My parents are proud and so are my siblings who hope to be able to go to school like me someday.’

This past week, as a unique exhibition of these young artists kicked off in the premises of Art Club Bangladesh, it reiterated the meaning of the small school Ashar Pothey, a Streetwise project run by a passionate woman and a group of young volunteers, where these children have been studying, drawing, painting and singing. Startlingly, each of the work of art displayed at the exhibit is intricate, colourful and of great quality.

‘Aparna Apa is the hope and the school is a dream come true,’ says twelve-year old Russel. Until the last one year, Russel spent his life on the streets and he refuses to speak of his bitter experiences. ‘I would want to stay here forever and never go back to that life,’ he says softly.

For all of these children, Aparna Anita Muyeed, the founder of the school and the organiser of this exhibition, is a glint of hope in their lives. ‘She paints with us, sings with us and we have a wonderful time together,’ says seven-year old Nayantara.

It is the works of art that the children did in school that were displayed in this exhibition. The items ranged from collages, T-shirts, greeting cards and bead jewelleries.

‘Making the beads was the best part of the school,’ says twelve-year old Fahima. ‘We made these necklaces, bangles of different colours and designs.’

‘I love drawing a plane more, after all I am not girly,’ says nine-year old Belal, smiling mischievously at the girls.

After a year, since the project has been running, Aparna feels these children are an indispensable part of her life. ‘My attitude towards street children was the same as everyone else’s. I ignored them either because it was too painful or it was not my job to change their lives,’ says Aparna. ‘But one day, I started talking to them. I did not give them money but just talked to them, listened to them speak whenever I met them in the signals.’

Having spent most part of her life trying to discover different fields of work, Aparna felt she finally had found her niche. ‘In a few months, just by talking to them in the signals of Gulshan built a strange bond between us,’ she remembers fondly.

Although she was born and brought up in Paris, Aparna and her siblings were always reminded of their beautiful country. ‘My father loved Bangladesh and it was his dream that his children would return to his country and do something significant.’

After completing college in USA, Aparna moved on to work as a researcher at the Child Study Centre at the medical school of Yale.

‘After coming back to Dhaka, I started working with children as a teacher in ISD. There, I extended my knowledge of art to these children, but deep inside I knew they really did not need me. There was something more self-satisfying that I could do.’

It was during that time, that she met some of these children at the Gulshan signal. Finally during Eid, Aparna and her friend Simeen decided to give them clothes as a gift and asked them to meet at a Simeen’s aunt’s school playground in Gulshan. ‘Surprisingly, they all turned up and it was simply amazing,’ remembers Aparna. ‘After that we decided to meet every Friday and give them food and the space to play.’

The best was, however, yet to come. As soon as more children started showing interest to study with them, they started teaching them informally in the garage of the school.

From what started at a tiny garage expanded into a dream come true. ‘Soon, we moved to a flat in Badda, near the slum where most children live. We started to take classes five days a week, from nine in the morning till five,’ says Aparna. ‘Thankfully, there were volunteers who were willing to extend their support and help this project become successful.’

According to Aparna, the Streetwise project is still in its pilot phase. She also wants to ensure that the school does not focus on becoming an NGO rather simply remain as a school for the children. ‘There is too much bureaucracy in an NGO. Things in a project like this need to be done fast,’ she says.

A unique aspect of the school is its focus on art- a way through which these children express themselves and also a means of their income. ‘Art serves as a valuable means of communication and expression and also serve as a form of therapy without the stigma,’ says Aparna. She cites the example of the use of art therapy both for assessment and therapy of abandoned children in Kiev, Ukraine and many other places which showed how art can be used to capture the imagination of street children and guide them away from substance abuse.

On many occasions, these children would never speak up about the dreadful experiences on the streets, but when it came to drawing they would actually tell their stories. ‘There were cases when they drew kids being beaten by the police and other brutal memories in an attempt to express what they never spoke of,’ she says.

But it is not an easy job to convince parents, especially when the child’s income is a major contribution in the family. ‘Given the situation, it is crucial to make a realistic arrangement with the guardians to ensure that they do not hinder their children’s attendance. For this, we had to provide stipends to the kids for their art work at the school,’ explains Aparna.

‘But it does not always work well,’ she adds ruefully and speaks of Robin, a ten-year-old boy who was a bright addition to the school and was forcefully removed from the school by his parents. ‘Sometimes it’s just too difficult to get it across that this school is going to make the kids self-sufficient.’

Indeed, the sales at the exhibition, which soared on the second day, has brought huge amount of funds for the kids. A large number of visitors, including famous personalities, bought the children’s art work. ‘Fifty percent of the funds raised at the exhibit will go directly to each individual child, from which a percentage will go to their guardians, the rest will go towards driving the Streetwise project further,’ hopes Aparna.

As the children sing a song of their success together, six-year old Babu points at his collage in the form of a plane and screams aloud and says, ‘I am going to make a plane for real one day and fly up there!’

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The resurgence of children’s theater

As eight-year-old Shadhin hides himself behind the tree, he hears the piercing wails of Joga Pagla, the crazy old man who lives in their village. Although Joga Pagla creates a lot of chaos and keeps muttering about Shadhinota (independence), Shadhin and his friends love him. At various times, Shadhin wanted to know the very meaning of Shadhinota, but even his teacher never seemed to have the time or patience to explain it to him.

As Pagla is tied with a rope and forcefully taken away, Shahdhin breaks into tears.

The moment of loss, the piercing wails of Joga Pagla and Shahdhin’s relentless effort to understand the true meaning of freedom, is truly captivating. As eight-year-old Shadhin cries aloud for the freedom of a caged bird, Joga Pagla and the villagers, the audiences are glued to their seats.

Despite the heavy plot, like most other children’s theatre plays, Pakhir Danay is vibrant and colorful. The element of humour and innocence shown through some ten other children is simply outstanding.

Children’s plays such as this, is not just a source of entertainment for the throngs of children and families who are coming all the way to the Public Library Auditorium, to watch the 8th Annual Children’s Theatre Festival through out this month. They are rather educational and learning tools. According to the organisers of the month long festival, People’s Theatre Association (PTA), the challenge is to establish this art form for children and also render educational messages.

‘I loved playing the role of Shadhin,’ says Kalyan Kumar Roy ecstatically, as he rushes out of the back stage after the play ends. ‘It did not only teach me about independence and respect towards elders, it also helped me become more responsible.’ Kalyan has come all the way from Dinajpur to perform on this stage.

For fourteen year old Shobuj Hossain, who played the intense role of Joga Pagla, this has given him the opportunity to be a part of a rich form of art. ‘I enjoyed working in the play immensely and this has certainly encouraged me to enhance my skills further.’

‘Drama is no longer a mere entertaining medium of learning and understanding,’ says

Liyaqat Ali Lucky, the ex-secretary general of PTA and the director of Loko Natyadal. ‘Our effort is to keep children in this wonderful art form that has started to decline and to encourage further participation.’

This year, PTA has around 80 children theatre groups from all over Bangladesh and over 3000 children who are participating in this vibrant festival. The unique aspect of this festival is that, it is providing the much needed exposure for children’s theatre groups from various districts and remote areas. ‘I think it is a unique opportunity for some of the competent groups who are not able to play on huge platforms like this,’ points out Lucky. ‘Often, Dhaka groups tend to get more attention, but there are groups from Jessore, Dinajpur, Rangpur, Bogra and many other areas, who are very promising and competent.’

PTA has already completed seven similar festivals and each year, it has seen an increasing trend of participation and also audience. ‘Such large scale festivals have helped spread theater practices in the schools across the country,’ says Lucky. According to Lucky, the acceptance level has invariably increased. ‘Parents are now willing to let their children participate and they have started to co-operate with rehearsal schedules, knowing that children’s studies are not being hampered by this.’

PTA’s efforts have gone beyond this large scale annual festival. The children’s theatre workshop has made a significant mark in the country and the movement of children’s theatre is now spreading across the country. ‘‘Theatre for children’ activities are being carried out among school-level children. Even the workshops for children’s theatre directors are giving a guideline to the children’s theatre movement. We also have more and more people coming to watch these plays,’ says Lucky.

Children’s theatre movement has indeed come a long way. The history of children’s theatre started back in 1970 as an endeavor of Kochikachar Mela. It was during 1973 that their activities were recognised and it started to spread. By 1976, a children theatre group named Shishu Natyam was formed.

‘Theatre in Bangladesh has struggled through time and this is true in case of children’s theatre as well,’ says Morshedul Islam, a renowned theatre personality and one of the pioneers of children theatre in Bangladesh.

‘When children’s theatre started to vanish due to lack of fund and acceptance, some of us decided to form an establishment and restore this art form,’ remembers Morshed.

It was during 1978 that Dhaka Little theatre was established by a group of artists including Morshed. ‘In just a year, our first production Taser Desh that consisted of 50 chidlren became an instant success. Thanks to Nazma Jesmin who simplified Tagore’s original for children.’

Some of the renowned productions of Dhaka Little Theatre were Bajranal (Thunder ball), Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the land of King Hirok), Sada Patharer Deshe (In the land of white stone), Chandan Bayatir Gaon (Singer Chandan’s village), Abar Arunoday (Again sunrise), Bhay Karlei Bhay (Scared, only if you are scared), Venice Saodagar (Merchant of Venice), Gomar Fansh (Secret disclosed), Jujubudi (Witch) and many others.

‘Despite the successful movement, during the mid-eighties, children’s theatre saw a decline,’ remembers Lucky. In 1990, Lucky took the initiative and worked relentlessly to organise more workshops and arrange platforms where young talents could demonstrate their skills. Since then, Bangladesh has participated in international children’s festival in countries like Germany, India, England, Japan and HongKong.

As children’s theatre sees a progressive movement, Lucky hopes to see more theatre audience and children participating in plays. ‘I think the challenge remains to break away from the mere concept of “over-night” stars and establish the true essence of theatre performance, that is experienced only through learning,’ says Morshed. ‘The positive sign is that parents are now co-operating and this art form is being accepted by a larger number of people.’

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Scarred for life (with Kate Day)

Hasina’s beautiful long hair gracefully brushes her back as she hurries through her office. It is one of those stiflingly hot April days and the air seems heavy with the expectation of the first rainfall of the season, but Hasina looks serenely confident in her striking black shalwar kameez. She is a successful young woman – she has a job, friends and a badly scarred face.

Just over three years ago, on the night of January 23, 2004, Hasina lay down to sleep little knowing she would wake in agonising pain, with her face and half her body disfigured for a lifetime by a single splash of acid. She was then just fourteen years old.

‘It was a cold winter night,’ she remembers. ‘I felt heat - it was unbearable. I couldn’t see anything and I was so scared that I started shouting.’ It took over half an hour to wake her family, who threw water over her burning body in a desperate attempt to stop the pain. ‘There was no electricity so they had not seen my face and thought it was something minor.’

But daylight soon revealed the true horror of the attack. ‘I couldn’t believe that the horrifying face before the mirror was mine,’ she says. Hasina was rushed to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH), where she received treatment for two months. She was later taken to the Dhaka-based NGO Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) where she stayed for a further three months.

She fights back tears as she speaks of the man who threw acid on her. ‘I called him uncle and he was my father’s helper. He had lived with us for fourteen years and we never had any kind of problem except the simple disagreements over little things.’ Hasina’s father a farmer in Naryanganj, trusted this forty-year old man but he secretly started taking an interest in his young daughter. ‘I had no idea that he wanted to marry me. He was just very possessive about me especially when it came to friends who were boys and said he would throw acid on my face if I did not stop meeting them,’ she adds quietly. ‘But I never even dreamt that he would actually do something like that. Now that he has escaped, I wonder what he got out of destroying my face forever.’

Last week, ASF honored seventeen acid victims like Hasina at a ceremony at the Jatiya Press Club in Dhaka. This comes less than a week since the foundation presented twenty-eight month old Durjoy on his return from treatment in Hong Kong after his aunt poured acid down his throat when he was just 49 days old. ‘He was the family’s only son and would inherit all the property,’ says Dr Kishore Kumar Das of the DMCH, where Durjoy was treated prior to his latest operation at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong. ‘His aunt said she was vaccinating him against polio,’ he adds.

Durjoy was taken to Jessore Sadar Hospital where the doctors detected the case as an acid attack. They referred him to Khulna Medical College Hospital where he remained for 35 days. But then his parents took him home and without proper care his burns became infected. He was admitted to DCMH several months later with his chin melted into his chest. Two years on and after a series of operations, Durjoy is at last able to say ‘amma’ but he is still unable to eat.

According to figures collected by ASF, over two hundred people were attacked with acid last year. Of these, the vast majority were women but 57 men and 30 children were also among the cases recorded. DMCH reports that 6 per cent of all patients admitted by the burns unit have suffered acid burns and of these, 19 per cent have burns to their face, 15 per cent to their neck and 19 per cent to their body. Along with all burns victims, acid survivors suffer not only the pain of the initial attack but also humiliation and rejection by their families and by society because of their disfigurement.

New laws introduced in 2002 have helped to stem the rise in attacks and treatment has improved since the specialist burns unit was opened at DMCH in 2004, but there is still little psychological help for victims. Those who come through extensive treatment and successfully rebuilt their lives, like Hasina, have done so without the support of trained psychiatrists to help them to come to terms with the stigma their injuries bring.

Dr SL Sen, one of three plastic surgeons at the DMCH burns unit, says patients arrive at the unit hoping that the surgeons can transform them back to how they looked before the attack. ‘It is very difficult to make their face normal again,’ he explains. ‘Acid damages all the skin, everything is melted. It is so deep a burn that everything is destroyed. We need to use local tissue but often it is completely destroyed with an acid burn. All the surrounding blood supply is damaged.’

‘When they come to us they become very helpless,’ he adds. ‘Treatment we are giving them, but there should be more psychological help and rehabilitation. It’s very important. If they can get a job, they can stand on their own two feet.’

Acid attacks can also be difficult for family members to come to terms with. Parul, 27, was too frightened to speak about the attacks her daughter Babli suffered at the hands of her father. He refused to accept his newborn daughter because he wanted a son, Babli’s mother says. ‘He used a dropper to put in drops of acid on her toes, then her thigh, her ear then on her bottom and finally in her mouth,’ she says fighting back tears.

‘The mother hid the true story for over two years and said it was a fungal skin disease,’’ says Dr Kishore Kumar Dus of DHCH. She repeatedly took the child to various hospitals until eventually doctors recognized that her injuries were caused by acid and referred her to DMCH’s burns unit.

Now eight, Babli hops and jumps around the table at the ASF where her mother works as a tailor. But her smiles and youthful energy only half conceal a restless sadness. ‘I do not like school much,’ she says in broken speech. When asked why, she runs away. ‘She has been emotionally affected and does not express herself,’ her mother explains. ‘But she knows her father did all this to her and she hates him. She will never forget the horrific truth about her life.’

‘She stays with me at work all day, but when we go on the street, people surround us and keep asking questions which makes it more difficult to live with the harsh fact.’

For Hasina, life is sharply divided into a time before and after her attack. She laughs awkwardly at any mention of other people’s reaction to her. ‘I live on my own with the other survivors like me in the BRAC hostel and I am happy. I am working as an intern in ASF and get Tk 3,000 per month. I hope they keep me after the internship is over.’ She is reluctant to speak about her family’s behaviour towards her, covering her ears with her hands and vigorously shaking her head. ‘I do not stay with them or take their help, because I guess it is better off.’

‘Look at me! I am not the same person anymore,’ she says ruefully. ‘People on the streets think I am scary and ugly and constantly make me feel, as though I am an alien, but that’s the way life goes for us.’

After a long silence she smiles and looks up. ‘Okay enough, if I say one bit more, I won’t be strong.’

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Learning is child’s play

With his little hands, he makes a desperate attempt to hold the multi-coloured toy in front of him. There is an unmistakable glint of recognition in his eyes. The very next moment, he bangs the toy and it is evident that he loves the sound and sudden flourish of the colourful marbles inside it.

But the moment a doctor tries to measure his head, his expression becomes sullen. Within seconds, he wails aloud and then throws the toy away. He is no longer happy. As his father tries to hold him tight, it makes things worse. He starts banging his hand against the wall and runs around the play room of the Shishu Bikash Kendra at the Dhaka Shishu Hospital.

It is a colourful room, full of toys, mostly handmade. At the other end of the room, four-year-old Muniza hides her face with her skirt, as she hears Faiaz howling helplessly and doctors trying to calm him down. She keeps muttering lines that do not seem to make sense. ‘She has not developed speech and does not communicate with others,’ says one of the doctors.

Through the window, the winter sunlight is streaming in. Three-year-old Ahnaf is circling around for, it seems, eternity. He does not seem to sense anything, even the piercing wails of Faiaz. He trips over one of the toy cars hard; yet, his expression remains the same. There is not a trace of pain or anguish on the face, which has been wearing the same blank expression ever since he was one. In the distant chair, his father tries to fight back tears of helplessness.

Dr Dilara Begum, the senior developmental therapist, intervenes and tries to calm Faiaz down. Faiza’s mother calls out his name fighting back tears. ‘Faiaz please speak to me,’ she says. Yet, there is no response. Four-year-old Faiaz Mahmood Fahim is in a state of desperation; he does not speak and this is the only way he can express his frustrations.

It is Dilara who brings him a few playing blocks and immediately a faint smile curls up at the corner of his lips. He sits in the corner and tries to say something in gratitude. He forgets about everything and the glow in his eyes is beyond words.
‘Faiaz is autistic. He could have been in a better state, had he been properly taken care of. It’s the very little things that can ensure proper development of children. Things like these toys,’ says Dilara, who works with a group of psychologists and doctors.

‘Some of these toys are even made by us, like this woollen red ball,’ she says as she points to the toy Faiaz is busy playing with. This is perhaps the first time, in four years, that he is at peace and the reason is motivation through a simple toy.
This year’s groundbreaking research on developing countries including Bangladesh reveals exactly that — toys can do wonder to children’s health and wellbeing, even if they are severely malnourished. The research proves the ongoing claims and studies of paediatricians across the globe that early intervention through stimulation of children with the use of toys can bring a sea of change in the health, intelligence and IQ level.

The research, published on January 6, estimates that more than 200 million children under 5 years of age in developing countries are not developing to their full potential. The paper, which is prepared by Dr Sally M Grantham-McGregor, a professor at the Centre of International Child Health of the Institute of Child Health at University College London in the United Kingdom, and her team, and looks at the issue of child development in developing countries, is being published in a series of three articles.

In September 2006 an extensive study on psychosocial stimulation improving the development of undernourished children in Bangladesh appeared in The Journal of Nutrition. Conducted by a group of doctors here in Bangladesh and guided by Grantham-McGregor herself, the research revealed significant improvement in the IQ level and overall development of severely malnourished children living in twenty villages in the remote upazila of Monohardi in Narsingdi.

This is the first scientific study, in Bangladesh, by far, which proves that psychosocial stimulations can develop malnourished children. The study done over a period of two years found marvellous results and may pave ways for the development of children. ‘It is important that proper nutrition and development, are integrated together, and it is only then that a proper result can be seen,’ says Dilara.

‘The research done by Dr Grantham McGregor and the team of researchers, provided more scientific information that backs the year long stress, on the importance of child development through playing and performing extracurricular activities in a safe child friendly environment. We intend to incorporate these findings and reach out more people,’ says Dr Golam Mostafa, Senior Project officer, Education Section, UNICEF. Dr. Mostafa is also, the team leader of UNICEF supported government run Early Learning Development for Children Programme (ELDP).

‘This study was carried out by Dr Grantham McGregor in Jamaica earlier, which revealed marvellous results, an example being a 10-point IQ improvement among children,’ says Dr Jena Derakhshani Hamadani, head of the child development unit and associate scientist at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh.

Grantham-McGregor is best known for early childhood stimulation, apart from the child development areas that she has worked extensively on. In Jamaica, she demonstrated the link between lack of stimulation and poor development in young children. The home visiting model in early childhood interventions for disadvantaged children for Jamaica and other developing countries was her invention. The model is today known as the Roving Caregivers Programme. She played a critical role in developing the proposal that led to the establishment of the Caribbean Child Development Centre.

‘The long-term follow-up of undernourished children who participated in a home visiting play program in Jamaica has shown sustained benefits at 18 years of age to their IQ, reading, school dropout, mental health [less depressed and anxious] and self-esteem [previous publications in Lancet and Brit Med J],’ she writes in an email to New Age.

‘Paraprofessionals [local women with primary education only] visited the homes for 2 years every week and demonstrated play techniques to the mothers using homemade toys. The challenge is to find ways of reaching the millions of children who are not developing well,’ she adds.

‘We replicated that model and carried it out here. But the challenge was the fact that Bangladesh is less developed with severely malnourished children and a completely different social background, Therefore, we had to make various changes before beginning the project,’ explains Hamadani.

An important aspect stressed by experts is that, given that the Play Programme is integrated with proper nutrition, it is expected to bring marvellous results. ‘We enrolled mothers and children, who had gone to the Bangladesh Integrated Nutrition Program, so that later on, we could tell the government about the scope of integrating this programme for better results,’ points out Professor Syed Nazmul Huda of the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science at Dhaka University. He was a consultant of the programme and was present during the research.

It was after the collapse of the BINP programme that the government introduced the Early Child Development, which was perhaps the first and essential step to achieve the Millennium Development Goal for universal primary education. ‘It has now been established that without early development, physical, cognitive, and emotional growth of children cannot be achieved and hence the high dropout rate that we have cannot be stopped,’ points out Haider Wasim Yaqub, program support manager of Plan International. ‘Child development begins since the birth of a child; therefore, proper parenting is important.’ Plan International and UNICEF have been working with the government on the project since its inception.

‘BRAC and Grameen Shikkha as well as the Shishu Academy have always played an integral role in the development of this project,’ adds Yaqub.

An interesting aspect of the study was that it covered children of 6-24 months indicating the importance of early intervention. The study brought success stories of children who were victims of severe malnutrition and, therefore, suffered from various diseases and disorder.

Twenty-two-month old Belal was among these children. Unlike other children, he would not utter a word or even a syllable. His mother longed to hear her son call her ma. But he never responded. It was then that she lost hope.

‘Belal’s parents actually thought that he was deaf. When he was enrolled in our project with his mother, we checked his ear and found that he could hear very well. Moreover, he was delayed in his mental and psychomotor development,’ remembers Hamadani.

As part of the stimulation programme, the play leaders selected from the villages and trained, taught the mother to regularly chat with the child, even while she was busy doing household work.

‘The challenge of the project was the different social structure of our country,’ points out Dr Fahmida Tofail, one of the researchers and assistant scientist of the child development unit at the ICCDR,B. ‘Unlike other countries, chatting with the child, singing, playing and such interactions are rarely practised by parents in Bangladesh. It must be mentioned that it is not only prevalent in villages but also among educated and higher middle-class families. They hardly give importance to such issues. Often, mothers excuse themselves by saying that they do not have the time for these due to household work. In fact, this is exactly what majority of the mothers said when we started the project.’

That was exactly what Belal’s mother had said. This is where an innovative part of the programme was used. ‘We produced a model, where mothers would use their learning within their daily routine of work,’ explained Fahmida.

Belal’s mother and a host of others were trained to use their working time in developing their children’s communication and other knowledge. It was an easy task. All they had to do was, instead of just feeding the child and forcing them, they had to chat and sing. ‘Many mothers even felt awkward, as they had not done something like this before. But soon, it worked. They started playing with their children while giving them a bath or making them sleep,’ explains Hamadani.

‘The mothers learned how to play with the child in a developmentally appropriate way using homemade toy materials. We visited them monthly and every time the mothers reported that their children had picked up a few words. At the end of the year-long psychosocial stimulation to the children like Belal, we found that they ware able to talk, they were healthier and their intelligence level had markedly increased,’ points out Hamadani.

The result through regular home visits by the trained women showed a big difference. ‘Children were more interested to eat and they proved to be more active, within a year,’ explained one of the trainers. ‘We also taught the mothers how to make toys from things around them. These included things like bottles, thread, betel leaf, stones and plastic.’

She brings a big basket and shows the toys made by the mothers during the programme. The basket contains flash cards made out of waste papers, where pictures of fruits, people, etc are drawn. There are also dolls made out of cloth, balls made with wool, a boat made out of betel leaf.

Hamadani picks up an old plastic bottle and puts a few little stones inside it and shakes the bottle, the sound attracts the attention of the six-month-old Rima in the nutrition research Unit of the ICCDR,B.

‘Here we are training mothers who live in the nearby slum and whose children are undernourished,’ explains Dr Baitun Nahar, an assistant scientist at the ICDDR,B.
Rima is a premature baby and has not been able to sit on her own. She is weak but still attempts to hold the bottle and shake it a little. ‘This stimulates her hand movement. The mother did not know how to make nutritional food and often forced the child,’ she adds.

Rima is better now and she smiles for a photograph, while her mother feeds her with the help of a homemade doll. This psychosocial stimulation programme has been incorporated as part of the treatment of young children in the hospital and the result has been remarkable. Many components in the model have been changed from the original one, done in Jamaica. ‘For one, we did not allocate extra time for mothers to work on their children’s development; rather, we made it a part of their work. It was also extremely difficult to convince the fathers and mother-in-laws who felt it was a waste of time,’ remembers Hamadani.

‘We measured the effects on children’s growth and development, and the mothers’ knowledge of child rearing. We also compared the growth and development of the undernourished groups with a matched group of better-nourished children. At the end of the study, the malnourished children had 5-point IQ improvement,’ explains Hamadani. The IQ was measured on basis of the ‘Gold Standard’.

The researchers clearly indicate that such stimulation methods can be used in an inexpensive way and is essential in the development of a child from its birth. These developmental projects are mainly run in different child development Centres.
The first child development centre was established at Dhaka Shishu Hospital, which has been using these methods among children who suffer from autism, epilepsy, etc. The playroom includes toys from different purpose. Here speech communication, cognitive stimulation and overall health check is administered and it is inclusive for all types of children.

‘A large number of parents are unaware that toys can do wonder to the development of their children. Proper knowledge of such aspects is needed in all classes of people. In fact, we are having more and more wealthy parents coming with problems such as unresponsiveness of children, delay in speaking, walking and, amazingly, all of these can be improved through toys,’ explains Dilara.

Dr Nasreen Begum brings the ball, with which Faiaz was playing. He is now sitting on a chair and banging the toys, and the sound makes him feel at ease. Ahnaf, on the other hand, is lost in his own world. ‘He is autistic and he is lost and does not respond to anything at all. He is new at our centre and the challenge is to improve his conditions in this surrounding,’ she explains.

Several children are brought to the centre every day. ‘Often they have vision impairment or do not speak,’ Nasreen adds.

Parents often accept the explanations given by the elderly people or relatives about delayed development of their children, Dilara says. ‘If a child is not speaking, they are told it is okay for some children to speak a little later. If their child does not respond, they wait till it gets unavoidable.’

It is true in case of Faiaz as well. Although autism and disability cannot be cured these children need more care. ‘My wife had a miscarriage and Faiaz was kept inside the womb for too long. The doctors at a Jessore hospital did not even perform an operation. So, from early childhood he had complications but we thought with time, he will be fine,’ says his father, Mohammad Saiful Alam, who works as a liaison officer at Bangladesh Betar Bhaban in Jessore.

Not only was his problem not detected early, but he was kept with the maid since he was three months. ‘He might have fallen or something might have affected him. We realised it only when he was almost two years,’ admits his mother, who works as a primary school teacher in Jessore.

Doctors point out that these children would have been much better, even cured, had importance been given to their problems earlier. Even the research team of psychosocial stimulation agree that there is a dire need for awareness. ‘Even educated parents hardly give importance to these little ways of developing their children. With more and more single families and working parents, these important parenting aspects are taking a back seat,’ says Hamadani.

Despite the benefits, the psychosocial stimulation programme is not as widespread as it ought to be. ‘The integration of this programme within the national programme will make a huge difference. Moreover, ours is the first programme with a detailed curriculum made for different age groups,’ points out Hamadani.

The government ECD project has gained a certain momentum over time. The proponents of the project are working to place it on a solid foundation. ‘We hope, by 2010, the new ECD project, now named ELDP, will reach out to people of religious and ethnic minority communities. UNICEF is continuously working in this area and we hope we can bring a significant change through early intervention,’ says Mostafa.
‘The project has been designed to develop and implement interventions that empower families with the aim of raising survival rates and giving children the best possible start in life, by promoting both physical growth and mental development. UNICEF aims to keep up with that motive and integrate the recent components introduced by researchers,’ he adds.

According to reports, although the government has incorporated ELCD into the Health, Nutrition and Population Sector Programme, it is yet to begin on a large and significant scale. ‘We are yet to see a significant step,’ laments Yaqub. ‘However, Plan is continuing its technical support given to BRAC and Grameen Shikha.’
BRAC and Grameen Shikha are also playing an important role in this developmental project for children. These NGOs have given particular focus on Shishu Bikash Kendra.

In recent years they have set up various centres where pre-primary schools are taught through toys and songs.

‘This not only enhances their intelligence but also helps them to socialise and prepare for primary-level schooling,’ says Profulla Chandra Barman, manager of the pre-primary programme at BRAC. ‘This programme enrols children under the age of five. We try to create awareness among parents and encourage playing.’

‘This form of early intervention is important for children with disability or impairment as well. Early identification of impairments is necessary because a large number of these children may need follow-up into the pre-school and primary level,’ points out Dr Naila Khan, a professor of child neurology and development at Dhaka Shishu Hospital.

Besides the hospital, the programme is being used at the Bangladesh Protibondhi Foundation. The foundation caters to children suffering from multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy. The main assumptions on which this programme is based are that rehabilitation is most effective when disability is detected early and followed up by education and training as soon as possible.

A standout and rare approach is the mother-child-stimulation, which has brought various success stories. The daily, two-hour MCS programme provides a variety of development stimulation and rehabilitation activities, depending on the individual needs of children. ‘With the help of some simple toys such as balls, blocks, we teach the mothers how they can stimulate the cognitive development of their children,’ says Dr Shamim Ferdous, chief executive director of the foundation. The programme aims to improve the activities of daily life of the child and to make him as independent as possible.

‘We have special schools at the foundation such as Kalyani, which is for children with special disability and others spread across Savar, Dhamrai, Kishoregonj, Faridpur, etc,’ she adds. She also mentions the foundation’s early intervention and infant stimulation programmes for newborns and children under the age of four. Here, speech, communication, cognitive stimulation, physiotherapy and the like are administered. ‘This is for all children. Moreover, our lunch programme in five centres outside Dhaka has been a real success.’

The lunch programme integrated with the other programmes can bring a wealth of difference to malnourished children across the country. ‘It must not be confused that a hungry child will be healthy if he plays with toys. Rather, it suggests that playing will help them and help them develop. Therefore, it is equally important to provide children with nutritious food,’ clarifies Hamadani.

The free lunch programme has decreased the dropout rate and increased the growth of children who were otherwise suffering from various health problems.
Plan International’s early childhood care and development is similar to the play programme. ‘The brain development of a child is at its peak till the age of six; therefore, we have integrated parenting, Shishu Bikash referral clinics and preschool programmes within the ECCD,’ says Sadika Akhter, a researcher at Plan International.

It is especially at the preschool level (i.e. from age 2 to 4) that children are encouraged to play, she says. ‘Stimulation through toys in as an innovative method and we try to ensure parents also learn its importance.’

‘Stimulation through playing-working with puzzles, flash cards, blocks and very minor things can increase the intelligence of children and their IQ improves,’ says Dilara. ‘We even encourage mothers to let children work with them even when they are making roti. Letting children play with the dough stimulates their hand movement. Playing with a simple clip can help hand movement. Moving a ball to different directions helps you understand your child’s vision. Moreover, helping them name the everyday objects is also important – all of these are not expensive or time consuming,’ she adds.

‘It is indeed a challenge to break away from the norm and establish something as new as this and create mass awareness and integrate it as part of the essential education system,’ says Hamadani.

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Of innocence robbed (with Mehrin Lubna)

It was two years ago, year eleven-year-old Bilkis Begum took her biggest step towards adulthood. The young girl from Lalmonirhat, 390km northwest of Dhaka, was oblivious of the consequences of marriage and submitted to her parents’ wish that she should be married off. She had never seen the groom, nor was she aware of what was expected of her at her in-laws’, or even what kind of people they are. Her mother explained to Bilkis that she was lucky to be able to get married at such an early age, especially given her family’s financial and social status. She was not allowed to know about the negotiations her father had made with her father-in-law. The festive mood in the family and the sudden affection and care with which her every whim was now treated made her feel that perhaps her life was about to change for the better.
Unfortunately, Bilkis’ realised soon after she arrived at her in-laws’ place that she was no longer treated as a child. She was frequently beaten, abused, and expected to shoulder the burden of the household work. At thirteen she found herself pregnant.
Bilkis suffered from ailments arising out of her pregnancy at such a tender age. Neither her husband nor her in-laws seemed to care. As she started complaining and protesting when she was mistreated, the abuse increased. Earlier this year, she was cast out of her in-laws house after a particularly vicious beating, soon after she gave birth to her daughter. Her parents, her husband told her, had failed to pay the dowry.
All that she brought back home were horrifying memories and seven month old daughter Jeba.
‘Back then I did not know what the actual meaning of marriage was. I had no idea that my life would change so dramatically. It became worse when I was forced to have sex with my husband, something I had no idea about,’ says Bilkis.
Her in-laws, she said, tortured her regularly because her father had not been able to pay the dowry, fixed at Tk 30,000. The thirteen year old would be beaten up and sometimes had to spend days without eating even when she was pregnant. ‘Sometimes I just wanted to die.’
Bilkis was finally turned out of the house when she gave birth to a daughter, she says still struggling to hold her tears back.
Like Bilkis, many girls of her village suffered the same fate. At village Mogholhat in Lalmonirhat, it is a tradition to get girls married as early as possible. ‘From the time of birth, parents begin to look for a groom for their daughter. There is no regard of his age or family. Sometimes, young children are even married to men who have married several times,’ says Bilkis. Predictably, most girls meet the same fate as Bilkis.
Child marriage, especially for girls, is not only a problem in the remote villages. It is a common phenomenon in the numerous slums of Dhaka where a girl child remains a burden, an extra mouth to feed, to parents.
Like Bilkis, Jahanara had been married when she was 12. Jahanara used to live in a slum in Banani. She had her first child two years later. The following year her husband left her and remarried.
Since then she has been working at a garment factory for 15 hours a day to provide for her daughter. ‘I don’t live for myself anymore. I live for my daughter. Everything that I am doing today is only to make sure that she gets all the opportunities that I did not. I just don’t want my daughter to have the same life as I did,’ says Jahanara, a grave resignation for a 19-year-old, who by 21st century standards should only be starting her life as an adult.
Early marriage has been a major social problem for Bangladesh for centuries perhaps, given the cultural customs and traditions. Despite the obvious consequences of early marriage, a large number of people, especially among the poor, continue to perpetuate the practice.
Children, mostly girls, are married without being asked consent, which even if it were sought would be ludicrous considering their age. According to a worldwide research on child- and early-marriage by the UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, Bangladesh has one of the highest percentages of marriage among girls before 18 years of age.
Statistics indicate that among the 28 million adolescents in Bangladesh, five per cent of the girls between 10 and 14 years and 48 per cent of those between 15 and 19 are married. Furthermore, it has been found that approximately 50 per cent of these married girls had no knowledge of their families’ negotiations on their marriages.
The research carried out by UNICEF studied both, physical and emotional consequences of early marriages. It identifies child marriage as the direct violation of child rights and presents three key concerns — the denial of childhood and adolescence, the curtailment of personal freedom and the lack of opportunity to develop a full sense of selfhood as well as the denial of psychosocial and emotional well-being, reproductive health and educational opportunity.
‘For both boys and girls, early marriage has devastating physical, emotional and intellectual consequences,’ says Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF.
‘The practice virtually ends a child’s chances of pursuing education or exploring professional and social life opportunities. For girls, the end result of child marriage is almost invariably premature pregnancy,’ she says. According to Bellamy, the risks of early pregnancy and childbirth are well documented and include high risk of death, premature labour, complications during delivery, low birth-weight, and a higher chance that the newborn will not survive. ‘We have been trying, with very little success, for years now to end the silent despair of thousands of children in Bangladesh and other countries, especially girls, who are being shuttered, away in lives often full of misery and pain,’ Bellamy laments.
Although societies have often identified the practice of child marriage as a social evil for ages, the numbers have hardly decreased. The UNICEF report lists poverty as the primary reason for early marriage. In Bangladesh, for example, poverty-stricken parents who can no longer afford to take care of their daughters are persuaded to part with them through marriage. ‘Parents often use early marriage as a strategy for economic survival. In families that are very poor, a daughter may be seen as an economic burden that must be shed through marriage as early as possible,’ says Bellamy. ‘Similarly, the economic gains incurred through the marriage of a daughter may also be an important motivating factor for poor families. On the other hand, parents are usually very considerate about their sons. Sons are often viewed as sources of income in the future and as a result, they are treated differently. While daughters are married off as soon as possible, sons are given better care and education,’ she says.
Advocate Mohammed Yeasin Khan of the Supreme Court echoes these views. He explains that getting a girl to marry early is one way to ensure her security and protection. Some parents also feel that marriage places their daughter firmly under male control and verifies that the children she bears are legitimate. ‘Girls in their teenage years often find themselves to be victims of exploitations and assaults. Thus fearing social disgrace, the parents wed off their daughters early,’ he adds.
According to Advocate Masuda Rehana Begum of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a watchgroup that works to protect the rights of women, there is more behind early marriages than simply poverty or security of daughters. ‘The custom of arranging marriages for daughters as early in their lives as possible has age old roots. Our traditional norms that are passed on by the mothers to their daughters, portrays an ideal woman as the one who let go of all her desires and dedicates herself into taking care of her husband only regardless of the fact of how he treats her,’ she says. ‘Actually, women in our society have always been seen as a weaker individual who cannot live without a man’s support. Right from the moment a baby girl is born in a family, her parents suffer from a deep sense of insecurity and thus to escape from this feeling they try to get her married as soon as possible. Even today, to many parents, a girl’s life is considered meaningless and incomplete, unless of course she is married!’
Whatever maybe the true reason behind early marriages, its effects on the health of young children is alarming. Early marriage is the direct or indirect cause of many health related problems and diseases among young women, often leading to death. In fact death due to untimely pregnancy is still a statistic that mars the otherwise impressive strides Bangladesh has made in health care.
‘Pregnancy related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for 15-19 year old girls worldwide and at present Bangladesh has the world’s highest rate of maternal mortality which is 4.5 per 1,000 live births,’ says Dr Parveen Sultana a gynaecologist at Dhaka’s reputed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical Hospital. ‘The risks of early pregnancy and child birth not only increases the risk of the mother dying of premature labour but it also creates complications during delivery and the chance of the newborn’s survival becomes exceedingly slim.’
She further points out that child marriages may put girls at an increased risk of HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STI’s). ‘Young girls usually get married to men who are much older. As a result, in many cases, the men, who have had other sexual relationships act as the carriers of the virus and pass it on to the girls. Thus, without being aware of it, the girls become infected with the virus. Unfortunately, the eventual sufferers are their children.’
Although often overlooked, another major casualty of early marriages is the education of married children. Most girls are forced to stop their education after marriage. This is due to the socially accepted belief that all the responsibilities of a girl are inside the house. As a result, girls become completely dependent upon their husbands. This leaves them in a helpless predicament in case the marriage breaks down as they do not have the qualifications to be financially independent.
The consequences of early marriage reach beyond the lives of young married girls themselves to the children they give birth to. Poor infant and child health outcomes are strongly associated with the early age of mothers, due in part to young women’s physical vulnerabilities and in part to the lack of social and reproductive health services for this high-risk group of Bangladesh. In most cases, infants and children of mothers who give birth to them before the age of 20 face consistently higher mortality rates even through to the age of five. Those who make it past that are often denied of proper education and guidance. Young girls unsurprisingly fail to play the role that is expected from them and cannot carry out their responsibilities efficiently.
Joynal, the six year old son of two very young parents in a Dhaka slum, is the innocent victim of an early marriage between his parents. From the time of his birth, he has been suffering from various illnesses. Furthermore, his young parents have failed to earn enough for his education. ‘There is hardly enough money in the family to pay for food. Besides, I have to spend a lot of money behind my child’s heath. I wish I was older so that I could earn more and give my wife and son a better life. It was foolish of me to marry so early according to my parents wish. I think early marriage is not only a mistake but also a crime,’ explained Nazrul, only 23 years old with a son of six.
Despite such obvious drawbacks of early marriages the measures being taken to prevent it are in no way drastic. It may probably be due to the fact that people differ in their attitudes towards early marriage. More importantly, the laws concerning early marriage are too old and simply not sufficient to deal with the problem. The only available act that deals with the marriage of under aged children is the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1948 (CMRA). The Act defines a child as a male under 21 years or a female under 18 years old. According to Section 4 of the Act, the maximum punishment for a male marrying a child younger than 18 years is simply a fine of taka 1,000 and one month’s imprisonment. Section 6 has similar punishments for other people involved in the marriage like the parents of the children and the kazi who administers the marriage.
‘It can be said without any doubt that the so-called law is not at all effective, because it is a toothless and anomaly-ridden law. Moreover, how many people are aware of the consequences of marrying early?’ asks Dr Faustina Pereira of the Dhaka-based NGO Ain O Shalish Kendra, which has built a reputation in working to establish rights for women and children. She further points out that the law has no punishment for the girls involved in early marriages although there are cases when the girls have a big role to play in early marriages and therefore bear part of the blame.
The most crucial drawback of the law is the fact that although it punishes those involved in arranging a child marriage, it does not judge the validity of the marriage. ‘This is where the main anomaly of this law lies. Though the Child marriage is punishable under this Act, this Act does not invalidate the marriage. If child marriages are to be seriously stopped, the laws definitely need modification and people have to be made aware of the laws,’ says Pereira.
The question, however, still remains as to simply the modification of laws can effectively prevent child marriages or not. The measures that are to be taken must not only prevent parents from arranging early marriages for their daughters but should also provide them with alternatives. A US-based International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) study on Bangladeshi women revealed that when jobs are available to girls, both daughters and parents become interested in delaying marriage. The IRCW study by Sanyukta Mathur and Margaret Greene reports that the readymade-garments industry in Bangladesh has played an important role in extending the period before marriage, while at the same time providing young women with the means to earn a living. The report also reveals that unlike most neighboring countries hardly any step is being taken in Bangladesh to promote education among young girls so as to prevent their early marriage.
Wiping out the tradition of child marriage from Bangladesh requires much more attention from the government than is being currently given, say experts. More importantly, the social belief about girls being the weaker gender has to change, they say. ‘The old Bengali saying which observes: ‘Caring for a daughter is like watering a neighbour’s tree summarizes the attitude of people towards women in this country. It reflects the view that it is a waste of resources to invest in a daughter who will be ‘lost’ to another family through marriage,’ wrote Janet Reynor a researcher on women’s rights working for the UK-based charity OXFAM. ‘It is vital for the future of a country that children receive the rights they deserve and are not burdened with the curse of marriage at a very early age.’

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New hope for children on death row

How much distress would the prospect of facing the gallows cause a fourteen-year? Raushan Mondol would know. Accused of the brutal rape and murder of Rikta Khatun (8) in 1999, his death sentence was confirmed in 2004, under the Nari O Shishu Daman Ain (Women and Children Repression Tribunal). Although Raushan was a child when he committed the crime, he was an adult by the time his case went to trial, and it was assumed that the laws preventing children from being put to death by the legal system no longer applied in his case. But a dramatic turn of events this year, has not only spared Raushan’s life, but possibly the lives of a host of other child offenders in the legal system, who face the death penalty.

On July 9 this year, a High Court bench ruled that Raushan Mondol cannot be put to death. Experts are lauding this as a landmark judgement, which will set a precedence that, children should be tried in the criminal justice system or any special tribunal establishment, under any special law.

‘The essence of this case was that for the first time, emphasis was put on the offender rather than the offence itself,’ said Fahima Nasrin, Advocate Supreme Court and Deputy Attorney General, Bangladesh. Nasrin was also the State prosecutor in Raushan’s case.

‘It cannot be denied that, this offence was grave, but the offender being a child, should be given a chance. Often, the determined date is the date of charge and trial and not the date mandated by the constitutional and other legal principles of the date of occurrence of the event; Therefore, it is more relevant and fair to take into account of the date when the crime was committed.’ Fahima further explains, that since most cases often take years in trial, by the time the final hearing takes place, the minor who committed the crime has crossed the age of 18 and become an adult. She cites the example of many children, including Shukur Ali, who is now twenty, although when his trial began he was a minor.

While the juvenile justice system of the country has been under much criticism as being ‘weak and unstable’, with Shukur’s Ali’s case being appealed once again after the confirmation of the death sentence, experts feel that, this judgement may play a significant role in establishing the right’s of children caught inside the criminal justice system.

‘In this case, the Courts relied on a novel interpretation of Article 28(4) of the Constitution, under which the state can take special measure for the advancement of women and children,’ points out Shahdeen Malik, Advocate Supreme Court and legal researcher. ‘Such special measures in favour of women and children cannot be challenged as being discriminatory. This Article is an exception to the non-discrimination principal of the Constitution,’ he says. Malik also assisted the Court in this case, as Amicus Curiae (friend of the court).

In Raushan’s case, it was argued that the Children’s Act, 1974, was a special measure in favour of children and no law can take away that special privilege granted to the child under Article 28(4). Therefore, as far as children are concerned, the Nari O Shishu Ain 1995 or 2000, cannot disregard this special privilege and try children in Tribunals established under these acts. This, however, was not taken into account, in case of Shukur Ali, who had committed the same offence as Raushan.

As the formal report of the judgement has been published this month, it has brought back hopes of Shukur Ali’s confirmation of death sentence to be ruled out. However, questions still remain, as any significant step, is yet to be taken.

‘In case of Shukur Ali, all we can do is wait for the final hearing and also the President’s response to the appeal for clemency (mercy) that was filed last year,’ says Nasrin.

According to officials of the NGO Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), Raushan’s judgment may change the various aspects of Shukur’s Ali, who was sentenced to death last year. The officials informed, that a meeting concerning the treatment of this Act will be discussed in a meeting before the final hearing in February, 2007. BLAST and Shukur Ali, had filed the writ petition in the High Court, challenging the constitutional validity of this decision, last year.

The judgment stated, ‘When the accused is a child under the Children’s Act 1974, irrespective of the offence alleged, that child must be tried by a juvenile court and not by any other court.’ This was ruled by the High Court bench of Justice Md Iman Ali and Justice AKM Fazlur Rahman, on the hearing of the case. Despite such explicit statement of rules, one can not help but wonder, as to why Shukur Ali’s case has not taken any step forward, as yet.

Till date, it has been almost five years since Shukur Ali is behind bars and waiting for a miracle. Last year, the High Court and Appellate Division had confirmed the death sentence of the minor, in the face of protests by several human rights organisations and bodies. ‘Such a confirmation by the High Court Division and the Appellate Division stemmed from an improper understanding or misunderstanding or wrong interpretation of a number of laws associated with Juvenile Justice,’ points out Malik.

Shukur Ali’s case is similar to Raushan’s. He was arrested on the charges of rape and murder of his neighbour, seven year old Sumi, in 1999. As the reports suggest, Sumi’s mother, Bhanu Begum found her daughter lying dead on the floor with ‘with vicious injuries on the leg and a reddish liquid by the side of her genital organ’. Soon, Shukur Ali was found on that afternoon, with Sumi’s missing ornaments. Following Bhanu Begum’s accusation, he was arrested on the charge of rape and murder under section 6(2) of the Nari O Shishu Nirjaton (Bishesh Bidhan) Ain, 1995 and put on trial by the special tribunal set up for speedy disposal of such cases.

‘In Shukur Ali’s case the fundamental right of a child was disregarded. Moreover, the concept of Juvenile Justice: that irrespective of the offence, the offender was a child, should have been taken into account,’ points out, Abu Obaidur Rahman, Coordinator, Advocacy, Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK).

As Shukur Ali could not engage a lawyer, a state defence was appointed for him. The trial continued for about two years at the end of which, Shukur Ali was found guilty. He was sentenced to death, a verdict later confirmed by the Supreme Court.

Reports suggest that, Shukur Ali’s case is not an exception; there are numerous cases of children like him, who have languished in prison in dreadful conditions facing possible death sentences.

‘Even if we assumed, as both the Courts found, that Shukur Ali was guilty of rape and murder, whether a child should be tried in the criminal justice model needed to be taken into account,’ says UM Habibun Nessa, advocate of the High Court and head of Programme (Protection), at the NGO Save the Children, UK.

‘At the time of the commission of the crime, Shukur Ali was a boy of about 14-15 years. So the question arises as to whether he should be tried under the Children’s Act, 1974 or under the special law,’ points out Obaidur.

Over the years, there has been much debate on this case. The first controversy is that this case ought to be under the Children’s Act, 1947 rather than the Nari O Shishu Nirjaton Act, 1995. ‘The Nari O Shishu Ain overrides the protection to children provided by the Children’s Act, 1974. A later law ought to be interpreted literally to exclude all other previous laws, even if such interpretation may reach the absurd result of putting lunatics of children for criminal offences under later laws,’ laments Malik.

‘All children under the age of eighteen are the responsibility of the state. Even if they commit an offence, it is the state’s duty to protect and support each child individually,’ says Malik.

According to Habiba, the proper way of dealing with cases like Shukur Ali’s should be different.

‘The first job of the judge would be to ascertain the age of the offender, and then, if found to be under aged, he would be handed over to the Juvenile Justice Administration. Individuals like Shukur Ali, would remain in the care of the Youth Development Centres (YDCs) until the age of 18 after which with information from the Centre, probation officer etc, the decision of what will be done in the future will be made.’

It is not a surprise that juvenile offenders return to their criminal activities after being released from jail. What the court fails to realise, in case of many juveniles offenders is the fact that it is not possible for such children to get back to normal life. In jail they live alongside hardened criminals. Sadly, instead of the jail acting as a correctional facility, it causes the children to sink deeper into the criminal life. The so called ‘corrected’ juveniles, usually take up criminal activities as their inevitable fate.

‘In recent years the public shock and outrage at violent crimes by children have increasingly been expressed in calls for tougher punishments to stop the perceived menace of spiralling juvenile crime. What receives far less attention is the way justice systems the world over are violating the basic human rights of children who come into contact with the law. Children are tortured and ill-treated in police custody. They are held in prisons in inhuman and degrading conditions. They are denied due process which should guarantee them fair trials. They are given sentences which disregard the key principles of juvenile justice - rehabilitation and the primacy of the well-being of the child,’ stated an Amnesty International report on Human rights and the juvenile justice system.

What is more depressing, is the fact that, in many cases the children who are caught and sent to jails may not have committed the crime they are accused of. A participatory research work, named ‘Shoshur Bari’ which was carried out by a group of street children and co-ordinated by Save the Children UK, revealed some tragic stories, about innocent children wrongly accused and put behind bars. The stories also shed light on some of the horrors of staying in jails along with aged criminals and also the fundamental rights of children are disregarded.

According to Pakhi (15), she was caught by the police while staying with her friend at Shadarghaat Launch Terminal and accused of prostitution. She had previously run away from the Arambag Club run by Aparajeyo Bangladesh due to some disagreements with the staff there. Despite her repeated requests and explanations, she could not make the police believe that she was innocent. The next day, Pakhi was produced before the court and was sentenced to imprisonment in the Dhaka Central Jail. ‘The magistrate did not ask me any questions relating to my alleged involvement in prostitution. He just gave the verdict. Many girls like me suffered the same injustice’, complained Pakhi in the report.

She also described her sufferings in prison:

‘We were all abused at the station, which included scolding, beating and other special punishments. The police tried to force us to give them information on girls suspected of being engaged in prostitution and other “bad” activities. They did not even provide any food at the station. Sometimes, they compelled us to do their personal work, namely, washing clothes, cleaning floors and toilets etc. The police regularly forced adolescent girls to have sex with them while in police custody and the girls had no option but to give in.’

The research showed that while street girls like Pakhi, were often accused of illegal prostitution, boys were accused of being involved with antisocial activities during ‘hartals’. Rafiqul (12) was picked up by the police while sleeping on the footpath near the National Stadium. ‘At around midnight, a policeman came and asked me whether I wanted to eat ‘khichuri’, which I readily accepted as I was hungry. The policeman asked me to follow him to a certain place, where a police van was waiting. As soon as I reached the police van, I was apprehended and taken to the nearest police station, where I found many other children like me,’ explained Rafiqul in the report.

Like everyone else, Rafiqul was charged with ‘antisocial activities’ during a hartal. He received no justice and after almost three months of imprisonment, he was sent to the rehabilitation centre at Batila, Manikganj District, where he spent three years before finally escaping. His descriptions of the rehabilitation facility reveal horrifying truths.

‘It is a “prison” where children are treated as adult prisoners, and regularly subjected to both physical and mental torture. Sometimes I was tied to a tree and beaten with a cane and sometimes I was locked up in a small room continuously for a week or more. The food that we were given over there were appropriate only for animals; they were dirty and full of stones. We also had to do very hard work ranging from cooking to massaging bodies of the police officers and other staff, who beat us severely for committing very simple mistakes. For instance, while cleaning the office grounds, we were beaten if we missed picking up a single leaf. Sometimes, the older children beat the younger children, which is why it is particularly hard for the younger children, who desperately seek ways to escape from that place’.

The vivid descriptions of Rafiqul, leaves little to the imagination on what goes on at the government-run Kishore Unayan Kendra which is tasked with rehabilitating these children. Unfortunately, most children are not as lucky as Rafiqul and have to spend years, and sometimes decades, in these conditions. Whether it is genuine offender like Shukur Ali or innocent boys like Rafiqul, fate is equally unforgiving for the juveniles behind bars.

‘We were kept with adult prisoners, who frequently abused us, and this was accepted by the jail police, who were no better than the prisoners. This was part of our everyday life in jail,’ added Manik (15). What makes things worse for these children is not only the dreadful conditions and experiences they endure at an early age but the fact that they are kept with adult criminals who not only affect these children physiologically, but also physically.

According to section 27 of Act IX of 1894, ‘Prisoners under the age of 21 shall be kept altogether separate from other prisoners, and of, the form former, those who have not arrived puberty shall be separated from others. This applies both to convicted prisoners and to prisoners under trial.’ And yet the reality is a stark contrast.

‘This means, every jail in which juvenile prisoners are detained must be provided for separating those four categories. Arrangements must also be made to separate adolescents guilty of grave crimes from other adolescents. Girls may be kept in the female ward but separation from adults must be arranged,’ stated a report relating.

Despite the clearly stated laws concerning juvenile justice, there have been contradictory actions taken on the part of the Court, Jail and Kishore Unayan Kendra.

According to experts, it is clear that the state has to ensure that the juvenile justice system is properly enforced and funded, but also to take alternative steps to help less fortunate children have a chance to lead a normal life. They further point out, that it is most important that the state should first assume responsibility of homeless street children and those trapped in a vicious poverty cycle that ultimately lead them to crime.

Experts hope that Raushan’s case will be taken as an example to improve such cases.

‘This should start the separate justice system where police, probation officer and the court together will assess the culpability of a child in regard to the offence he/she is accused of, and the juvenile court will never hand down the punishment of death penalty or lifelong imprisonment to a minor,’ said U.M Habibun Nessa.

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