<%-- Page Title--%> Special Feature <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 125 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 3, 2003

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Let Them Speak for a Change


A few weeks ago several dailies carried the news of teenaged boys trying to commit suicide at a government-run correction centre because life for them was just too much to bear. Living in the worst living conditions imaginable and being subject to physical abuse, these children felt they had no other option but to end their young lives.The situation at detention centres may be extreme but in general children in Bangladesh face the biggest odds and enjoy the least benefits. They are taught from a very early age that they must respect and obey adults, that they must look after their parents but that they must also earn their own living, live without basic needs and constantly face physical abuse and general neglect. The adults of society have pathetically failed in their duty to protect their young. In this scenario it seems to make a lot more sense to get the children to speak out about their needs and frustrations.

Recent campaigns to protect the rights of children have been promoting the concept of 'children's participation' in policy making. Besides reversing the parochial mindset that says 'children should not speak but be spoken to' it also recognises the fact that in spite of countless laws being implemented and endless promising from politicians, the plight of children still remains extremely miserable.

On Sepember 15, 16 and 17 a national seminar was arrange at the CIRDAP auditorium in Kakrail by Save the Children Sweden- Denmark to allow almost 75 children from six divisions to speak their minds and discuss with government officials and NGO and international organisation (such as UNICEF) representatives, issues that concern the welfare of children. The child representatives included girls and boys from diverse backgrounds and included indigenous children, street children and children with disability. They talked uninhibitedly about problems common to almost all children of Bangladesh _ basic needs remaining unmet, lack of security, political exploitation of children, using children for hazardous work, physical and mental abuse, lack of wholesome entertainment, lack of opportunities to be educated and lack of proper health care and nutrition. They also raised a few less talked about problems such as discrimination against indigenous and physically and mentally disabled children, lack of shelter for street children and exclusion of children in decision making.

An interesting proposal on the last day of the workshop that came from the children was to increase their presence in the media. Sharmin one of the child representatives said that there should be more programmes devoted to children on the national television and radio. Moreover, she pointed out, that the existing programmes are shown when children are in school. Other children said that there should be more information in the electronic media about crimes against children, about the problems they face. “I didn't even know that there was such a thing as the National Plan of Action”, says Sharmin, “all children should know about it. All children should know what is the plight of children in remote areas, that they are being deprived of basic rights, that they are being abused.”

Aditi, another confident teenager commented that all the dramas on t.v. and films shown at the halls are for adults and about adults. “Can't we have more films about children?”

Apart from general needs like food, protection or just a playground, some children have special needs. Afrin Akhter Bithi, a teenager who is confined to a wheelchair due to a deformity in her legs, says that all disabled children should have opportunities to go to school and be employed. She herself is in class six and besides her disability, is as self-assured and articulate as any of the other child representatives at the workshop.

Hero Hawladar, a boy from Khulna who stays at an orphanage said that the biggest problem he faced was getting nutritious food. “Our organisation does not have much money and they cannot give us good food or clothes. We often get sick and have no playground to play in” adds Hero who loves cricket and football.

Minoti, Shoma and Laboni are all from remote areas of Natore. They are from an indigenous community and are adolescent girls which make them doubly deprived and neglected. “We have very little scope for education”, says Shoma. “There are a lot of early marriages in our area”, adds Laboni, “people are very poor, health care is poor, we don't get enough food and many babies die…I used to want to learn how to sing one time, but that is just a dream”

The three-day workshop is part of an ongoing national campaign to 'Say Yes for Children' (that reached 64 districts) and to get the voices of children heard. In May 2002, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, at a special session of the UN in New York, announced the government's launching of the National Plan of Action (2003 to 2007) for children. Already some of the steps in the National Plan of Action have been implemented through the relevant ministry. To assist the government to make it work, Save the Children Alliance, Bangladesh, ILO, 'Say Yes for Children' member associations and NGOs from all over the countries have exchanged views with children through workshops and seminars which government representatives have enthusiastically participated in.

In January this year, Prothom Alo's round table discussion as part of the campaign, focussed on the rights of children in national policy making. Among the participants were prominent political figures such as Khurshid Jahan Huque, Minister of Women and Children Affairs, Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, Minister LGRD and Abdul Jalil, General Secretary Awami League.

The government, moreover, has formed a sub committee to execute the National Plan of Action, a committee that will also comprise child representatives and ordinary citizens. The government seems to be sincere about making meaningful changes in policy by incorporating the views of those who are directly affected by it. This is a major difference in approach to policy making, one that may actually produce results. At the conclusion of the seminar on September 17, a government official from the Ministry for Women and Children Affairs asked for a list of issues that children thought needed to be addressed at the policy level. A child representative asked boldly whether the government would forget about them once the seminar was over.

But fourteen year old Zakaria Hossain, who works as a rickshaw puller in Sylhet and barely gets two meals a day, still has hope that this extensive dialogue between the government and children with the help of the NGO community, may bring about changes in his life. “If the government makes sure we get good food and health services and helps us to be educated then we can be good teachers and teach those who are younger”. Certainly a policy for the betterment of 'our future', a cliche we adults love to flaunt at seminars, cannot be clearer than that.


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