Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio

16Jun/060

Forgotten children, forgotten dreams

Many years ago his mother had left him at the platform of Sadarghat. She had given him his favourite ‘butter bun’ and promised to be back by dusk. He waited until evening gave way to night, but she never came back. For him the memory of that day is vague but the dull pain stays. He doesn’t remember what happened next or how he ended up working from dawn to dusk in a drab shoe factory in Lalbagh. It’s been about five years since Saadul Islam started working for a living, and most days, he is happy to make do with a little extra sleep.

At the beginning he would scavenge things from rubbish and try to sell them and spend most of the nights on the roadsides or railway stations. Later, he was adopted by a family and he grew up there. But in exchange of the shelter they gave him he had to work and pay for the household expenses. The journey of hard labour started for him.

‘I had to wake up early in the morning and go to work. I had to carry heavy loads of goods up to five floors and down. It was a risky job and I got injured many times. I was constantly scared of losing my balance and falling off the stairs of the top floor’ says Saadul.

Soon he left the work which paid him a pittance compared to the hard work he had to put in, but this brought new troubles. He was often beaten at home for not being able to earn. ‘He was threatened to be kicked out if he didn’t get back to the work and bring in money. He was miserable. He was beaten up at home and asked to leave. He pleaded me to get him a job and finally I got him a work at a shoe factory,’ said Aslam, a neighbour who took pity on Saadul and gave him a job. ‘I helped him because I had spent my childhood in the streets working as a rubbish picker, tea-seller and in many other cruel and hard professions and I didn’t want him to suffer the way I and thousands of other children suffer.’

So, the fear of being abandoned again dragged Saadul back to the life of working day and night without any respite.

Like Saadul, there are countless numbers of children who do not know the true joy of childhood, the pleasures of being pampered or loved. Today Saadul works in a dinghy shoe factory till about three or four in the morning. ‘It’s a lot of hard work. Sometimes I don’t get any sleep. I have to work from dawn and it’s very tiring. Most of the time I suffocate from the smell of the gas and paint. After work, I also have to pack the shoes and take the van to Islambagh,’ says the gutsy twelve-year-old. Despite the hard work Saadul tries to look at the brighter side. ‘I get Tk 600 per month which is a lot more than what I used to get. Besides, my family wont kick me out of the house now.’

Unbeknownst to us, we come across children like Saadul involved in different forms of hard labour, children who tolerate extreme forms of cruelty and misery, almost everyday. You can see them almost everywhere in the bazaar, commercial areas, bus terminals, hotels, parks, on the pavements, around the stadiums, gutters and in the hundreds in Dhaka slums. Most children live on streets and try to earn money in any possible way, be it through collecting garbage, breaking bricks, pulling rickshaws, serving tea, begging, scrounging or even through prostitution and petty crimes like pick-pocketing.

Saadul is one of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi children who face a miserable plight at such an early stage in their lives.

The life of ten-year-old Shujon is not a very happy one either. Although he has a family, he has been working for the last four years, first as a tea seller and now in an aluminium factory. ‘I have to work because my father drinks and my mother works as a maid and it’s not enough to serve the family’, explained Shujon. ‘I want to go to school and study and become a doctor, but if I go to school who will look after my family?’ Shujon’s dreams seem to fade away with each passing day of hard labour at the aluminium factory, despite having a family, poverty seems to be a major reason behind his predicament.

Recent trends suggest that child labour is increasing at a drastic rate and a factor behind the drastic rise is the lack of job opportunities for adults; consequently a good number of factories prefer employing children as that ‘reduces their production cost due to cheaper wage’. Sources from International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), a project of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), points out that employers running small factories are usually keen to employ more children for cheap labour and although a bilateral agreement has been signed among various unions and employers, the number of child labourers has not gone down in the country.

The exploitation of child labour is rampant. Millions of working children, unable to assert themselves, have no collective bargaining power and are usually unaware of their rights. They are made to work long hours and frequently under inhuman conditions. An employer in a motor repairing shop said, ‘They are nimble and have keen eye sight, eat less food and their size enables them to crawl in small spaces, and best of all, they cost less to employ.’

The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics(BBS) in the National Survey of Child Labour 2003 shows that among approximately 42.8 million children, aged between 5-17, in Bangladesh, 7.4 million are engaged in some sort of economic activity. On the other hand, 3.2 million children are directly selling their labour to earn a living, Moreover, 1.3 million children are engaged in the worst forms of child labour that leads to adverse effects on the child’s health, physical and mental developments. These hazardous forms of labour are mostly at chemical factories, leather factories, matches workshops, welding, domestic work etc.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) Asian Child Labour Report, published in 1999, there are some 40 industries in Bangladesh which use child labour, often under hazardous conditions and with little regard for health and safety. Children have been injured while engaged in underground mining, in maritime work and while operating or cleaning machinery in motion. Child workers are regularly exposed to dangerous levels of dust, gases, fumes, heat and noise. Muscular-skeletal and respiratory-related ailments are common among these child workers.

The elimination of such great numbers of child labour seems impossible. Surveys show that average household income includes about 20-23 per cent contribution of child labour. If child labours is to be eliminated, then this percentage of income needs to be provided in some form. For example an innovative programme introduced by BRAC was the ‘Targeting the Ultra Poor’ in 13 districts across the nation. The aim of the programme is to transfer assets such as cows, goats and other forms of income to families in exchange of reducing child labour.

The impact of this is yet to be seen, especially with so many factors such as lack of awareness, socially acceptable norm of having children working, and the lack of proper policy making, the elimination of child labour seems far fetched.

It must be noted that the introduction of Learning Centres offering informal education for working children seems to be an innovative way to improve the state of child labour. ‘Aparajeyo-Bangladesh has given me the chance to experience a great life at their learning centre. Although I don’t get to attend most classes due to workload, the only thing I look forward to in a week are these classes where I not only get to learn but also meet my friends,’ says Saadul. ‘Maybe someday I can study full time and become a rich businessman.’

“This kind of informal education has been designed especially for these children who cannot be enrolled in formal schooling. The programme includes a chain of strategies whereby we start from the street children who are enrolled in these learning centres, once a child does noticeably well and attends classes, we shift them to other centres which include food and shelter facilities, vocational training etc,’ explains Evan the programme Manager for Aparajeyo-Bangladesh, an NGO that has been working to help working children find a foothold in life.

With the help of UNICEF who provided us with educational books, we are trying to at least ease the working condition of these children and provide them with some amount of informal education and awareness,’ he adds. Dhaka Ahsania Mission has also been providing non-formal education to children involved in hazardous work. The aim is to prepare them to join the mainstream education system after they are through with the one-year free education provided by these centres. There are a lot of organisations who are sensitive about this issue and are implementing programmes to help working children. The battle is an uphill one, however, as very little progress seems to have been made in eliminating child labour.

‘With so many factors at hand, child labour cannot be eliminated in the years to come. So we have tried to introduce certain code of conduct that reduces harmful elements at work (implemented recently in KuriGram and underway at Lalbagh) and ensures reduction in workload, timing etc that would at least ease the work for children” says Khodadad Hossain Sarker, a programme manager at Save the Children, UK.

‘We have plenty of formal policy objectives in the country but what we need is an informal policy objective for Child Labour,’ he adds. Indeed, the country lacks a proper policy objective or focus. Although an informal policy on child labour was made in draft format, it is yet to be finalised. It is important to note, that although the government has made primary education mandatory since 1993, the school enrolment figures are not satisfactory. ‘A poor family looks at the opportunity cost of sending a child to school, their logic tells them that the time put in school could earn them at least Tk 100 if they worked. Moreover, there are certain elaborate criteria set out for the enrolment which cannot be satisfied by most children; with the irregularity, poor quality and minimum amount of money involved in primary schooling, the shift of number of Child Labour in worst forms of trade is on the hike,’ says one researcher working on the issue of child labour.

Across from every plush apartment complex and multi-storied shopping mall in Dhaka, in dilapidated factories and crowded bus ports there are children like Saadul and Shujon who long for a day without labour. With their big brown eyes they look around their surrounding yearning for a better tomorrow, a day without work. They smile through tears and hard work and hope against every hope. As the eight year old Rahima puts it ‘Someday, I will become a judge and send everyone who makes us work to jail.’ These are the forgotten children of our country who despite all odds have not forgotten their dreams for a better day, a better life.

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