About 200 teenagers were found shouting slogans near the IBA Hostel in Farmgate on Sunday to drum up public support for Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, Awami League candidate for Dhaka-12.
Party activists were telling the boys to chant the slogan “Kamal bhai er agomon, shubhecchha shagotom”.
This is not an isolated case. Children in political rallies, chanting slogans and distributing leaflets, for national polls candidates has become all too common in Dhaka lately – a blatant violation of child rights.
On Victory Day, some 100 children were seen rallying for AL's Dhaka-15 candidate Kamal Ahmed Majumder in Shewrapara area. According to locals, they were brought from slums and offered small sums of money and food in exchange of their labour.
Children and teenagers are being engaged in political campaigns as they are easy to manipulate, according to rights activists.
What's more disconcerting is that this practice is turning fatal. At least 28 children were killed and over 100 injured in political violence over the last six years, according to Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF).
The Election Commission and law enforcement agencies have been turning a blind eye to this exploitation, rights activists claim.
These children – coming from low-income families – are paid Tk 200-500 per day to participate in political events, shout slogans, put up posters and distribute leaflets.
Twelve year old Babu (not his real name) was found handing out leaflets for BNP's Dhaka-13 candidate Abdus Salam on a bus in Mohammadpur on December 13. The leaflet read, “How to cast your vote for 'sheaf of paddy' using Electronic Voting Machine”.
Babu said he was promised Tk 200 for giving out 500 leaflets. Asked why the adults were not doing this, he responded, “Out of fear.”
“If the elders do this, they might get beaten up,” Babu said, adding, “Giving out leaflets of 'sheaf of paddy' also makes me scared.”
Mohammadpur is the neighbourhood where two teenagers – Arif Hossain, 14, and Mohammad Sujon, 17 – were killed during an intra-party feud just a month ago.
Leaders of Awami League claimed that the victims were their “unit members” but a number of teenagers who were with Arif and Sujon, and witnessed the incident, claimed that they were hired for Tk 300 for the day.
A Jubo League leader was out on bail, hours after he was picked up in connection with the deaths of the teenagers.
With a heavy heart, Arif's father Faruq Mia, a rickshaw-puller, said he neither had the financial ability nor necessary connections to seek justice. He, however, added that the local commissioner promised him compensation.
The country witnessed death of 11 children in political clashes in 2013, prior the 10th parliamentary polls. Apart from deaths and injuries, many minors were detained during different political programmes, according to BSAF data.
Although political violence was not frequent in 2015, a total of 25 children were killed and 76 were injured in arson, crude bomb explosions and city corporation election-related clashes, the rights organisation claims.
AS Mahmood, director of BSAF, said employing children in political activities is a violation of the Children Act. “The Election Commission may ask law enforcement agencies to take actions against political parties who are using children in electioneering,” he suggested.
Election Commissioner Rafiqul Islam said the matter could be brought to attention of election enquiry committees, who can take measures in line with the Children Act.
“Some children willingly join political rallies. But I hope all parties will keep in mind the importance of upholding human rights and child rights during electioneering,” he said.