Time for action is now
On July 11, three under-five children drowned in two unions of Netrakona's Kalmakanda upazila. The incident, however, was not highlighted in the media, as child drowning still remains one of the neglected and underreported issues in Bangladesh.
The deceased were one-year-old Mostaqim, son of Sabbir Hossain of Rangchhati union, five-year-old Tasfia, daughter of Khairul Islam of the same union, and one and a half-year-old Jahidul Islam, the only son of Arshad Mia of Nazirpur union.
Each of them died when their family members, especially mothers, were busy with household chores, and the children were exposed to nearby ditches and ponds.
According to a recent media monitoring report on drowning deaths, conducted by SoMaSHTe, a media development and communication focused organisation with support from Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), of the 1,402 people who died in the past 18 months due to drowning, 83 percent were children.
What is more alarming is that Netrakona had the highest death record (66) in this period.
Even though the data is alarming data, upazilas of Netrakona do not seem to have taken any visible interventions to prevent these avoidable deaths and no awareness campaigns have been conducted by the district administration.
For example, Tahera Begum, union parishad chairperson of Rangchhati, and Abdus Kuddus Babul, UP chairman of Nazirpur union, said they are unaware of the death of the three under-five children of their unions and currently, there are no such directions on conducting awareness campaigns regarding drowning in those unions.
Netrakona civil surgeon Dr Md Selim Miah also said as per his knowledge, the district administration of Netrakona has no such programmes or initiative in preventing child drowning, even though there are at least five haor upazilas in the district.
"The death toll has been increasing here because parents these days keep so busy in household chores and services, that they cannot supervise their under-five children properly and teach swimming to those who are over five," he said.
"There needs to be a massive awareness campaign targeted towards parents, and both government and NGO interventions are needed to prevent this neglected death. Especially, under-five children should be supervised well, since they are not eligible for swimming," he added.
"Our health staff who make door to door visits occasionally inform the parents regarding this issue, but these are not enough," he further stated.
There is a severe lack of awareness in other drowning prone districts too, even though a report of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, released this June, suggested that drowning is highly prevalent in rural areas, scoring second major reason for the death of under-five children in Bangladesh (after pneumonia).
According to child rights activists, although Bangladesh has progressed a lot in decreasing the rate of under-five mortality by adopting notable interventions to prevent pneumonia, diphtheria, polio and so on, compared to these, it has not paid the same attention to the issue if drowning, despite the staggering numbers.
Dr Aminur Rahman, deputy executive director, Centre for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh (CIPRB), who is also the director of CIPRB's International Drowning Research-Bangladesh, said, "Studies show that drowning accounts for 43 percent of deaths among children between the ages of one and four. Every day 30 children under five die from drowning who didn't even grow up enough to learn swimming."
"There hasn't been an awareness campaign because there still isn't a national strategy or intervention to prevent child drowning. The Directorate General of Health Services, in 2019, prepared a draft national strategy regarding drowning prevention, that included massive awareness development activities, and it was submitted to the health ministry. But sadly, this is yet to get approval from the ministry," he added.
"Along with creating awareness, we must ensure that under five children are kept under adult supervision, and it will be best if they can be kept under institutional supervision," he said, adding that "children over the age of five must learn swimming."
"Awareness programmes focused on some specific skills, such as, rescue skills and first responses should also be introduced," he added.
The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs had earlier taken up two projects to reduce the death of a child by drowning. In a project worth Tk 5 crore that ended in June, 298,000 children have been taught to swim.
Another programme worth the same amount will teach two lakh children to swim.
NEW PROJECT AWAITING APPROVAL
Very recently, the ministry also developed a detailed project pro-forma (DPP), worth Tk 309 crore, which will enable institutional supervision of children under five through 8,000 community based day-care centres.
The project is now at the planning commission and awaiting approval from the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council.
Under the three-year project (expected to be completed by June 2024), two lakh children under the age of five will be kept under close observation in 45 upazilas of 18 districts.
Under the project titled "Inaugurate Community-based Centre for Child Care, Protection and Swim-safe Facilities", there will be 10 institutes for Barishal division, nine for Chittagong, one for Dhaka, five for Khulna, nine for Mymensingh, three for Rajshahi, three in Rangpur and seven for Sylhet division.
"We have already identified drowning as a major issue of child death and are working on the project prioritising prevention. An all-out effort of the government and NGOs can prevent this situation. We are hoping that the project will get approval soon," said Fazilatun Nessa Indira, state minister for women and children's affairs.