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     Volume 7 Issue 9 | February 29, 2008 |

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Human Rights

Towards a Child-Friendly Society

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Over five lakh children live on the streets in Bangladesh. They lack the security of a family and home, protection of the law and recognition from society. But what rights does even a “normal” child -- with a family and home, going to school (or, in many cases, work), apparently safe and secure -- actually have?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), approved on November 20, 1989, is an international agreement, which articulates the human rights of children and the standards to which all governments must aspire in realising these rights for all children without discrimination of any kind. According to this agreement, children have the right to life, survival and development and the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in all matters pertaining to children and their views considered in all such matters.

The 54 articles of the convention promise children, among other things, the right to education, equal treatment and the right to an opinion, emphasising on participation, provision and protection. They are based on the concept of the child as an active and contributing participant in society and cover the basic rights to survive and develop, including health care, food and clean water and education. They also deal with exploitation of children at work; physical, sexual and psychological abuse and discrimination and general mistreatment, making it a duty for parties to the Convention to protect and, where necessary, provide rehabilitation for children.

Every five years, the government presents a UNCRC Report and alternative reports are presented by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), pointing out the lapses in the government report and making their own recommendations. This year, Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), which is working specifically on child rights with 12 partners who in turn work with 54 other partners throughout the country, has, after a yearlong exercise, drawn up an alternative report. The report, which was presented for discussion and recommendations at a seminar at the LGED Bhaban in Agargaon last week, focused on four thematic areas -- education, child labour, juvenile justice and special protection.

Lack of proper certification also results in children younger than the legal age of 14 entering the workforce.

According to the report, there is a major problem regarding definition of the child, with discrepancies in the standard age for a child. Where the legal age is 18, the age of sexual consent is 16, which allows young girls to be exploited and forced into the sex trade without any legal implications for the exploiters. With regards to civil rights and freedom, many children do not have access to birth registration, resulting in the inaccuracy of their age. In terms of family environment and alternative healthcare, the government of Bangladesh, which signed the UNCRC treaty in 1990, holds reservations against adoption due to religious reasons.

In the area of education, though primary enrolment is currently at 90 percent, the retention rate is still low. This has been attributed to lack of proper school facilities such as textbooks, girls' washrooms and the absence of an overall child-friendly environment at schools which forces many students to drop out. Despite being “literate”, the level of education of students, i.e., the quality of the education gained is questionable. The budget allocation is inadequate in the sense that more funds go into infrastructure development than in ensuring quality education through the training of teachers, the availability of textbooks, etc. There is no curriculum that provides bilingual education for linguistic minorities. In terms of child labour, what is “hazardous work” is unclear, while the lack of proper certification also results in children younger than the legal age of 14 entering the workforce. In the informal sector, children are basically treated as young adults, verbally and physically abused and with no scope to report these abuses.

Criminal laws of the country result in children constantly falling victim to the justice system. Children are approached as criminals who need to be punished rather than rehabilitated. “'Correction centres' have been changed to 'development centres' in name only,” said human rights activist Dr. Hameeda Hossain. The age of criminal liability, which has been increased from seven to nine years of age, should be further increased, said Hossain, for a child of nine can hardly be held responsible for criminal acts.

With regards to special protection, there are no long-term provisions for street children who are the most vulnerable and who are often forced to commit illegal acts. Though there are laws against child prostitution, the State has turned a blind eye, claims the alternative report. Overall, not only are children not protected outside the home but even within the family.

The spirit of the Children's Act of 1974 is not embraced, claimed speakers at the seminar. “Bangladesh is yet to be a child-friendly nation,” said Shahana Siddiqui, Consultant, MJF.

Recommendations of the report included a five-year plan to target areas which need attention, allocate adequate budgets, etc; greater transparency, not only in financial matters but also in terms of work being done by different NGOs so that they do not overlap; advocacy for child rights and child-sensitive projects and programmes on the part of both the government and NGOs, prioritising children in different sectors such as health, etc., and strengthening coordination and reporting mechanisms between the government and NGOs as well as between NGOs. The report stresses the importance of the government, NGOs and civil society in working together to identify problems, find and implement solutions in order to ensure the rights of the child.

Among recommendations made by the participants at the seminar -- which included chief guest Rasheda K. Chowdhury, Advisor to the Caretaker Government, Women and Children's Affairs, Primary and Mass Education and Cultural Affairs; special guest Dr. Hameeda Hossain and Executive Director of MJF, Shaheen Anam -- were a coordinated and combined report by the NGOs to the UNCRC, including a draft in simple Bangla for NGO workers at the grassroots; institutionalisation of monitoring; and increased coordination, dialogue and networking at the local level. Most importantly, the speakers recognised the importance of understanding children and their rights and providing them with their basic needs in a child-friendly environment, which recognises their vulnerability and specialty.

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